Cairo, 1912. The Pasha receives an unexpected gift: a traditional Bride Box. When opened, however, the box contains an unwelcome jolt from the past . . . At the same time, a little girl is discovered riding under a train from Luxor - and the Mamur Zapt, Head of the Khedive's Secret Police, is called in to investigate.
He soon finds himself confronting a political storm as the end of British rule approaches and his investigations uncover a tangled web of family loyalties and betrayals, with its roots in a slave trade long supposed to have been stamped out in Egypt.
About the Author
Michael Pearce grew up in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. He returned there later to teach and retains a human rights interest in the area. He now lives in south-west London and is the author of the highly-acclaimed Mamur Zapt historical mystery series as well as the Seymour of Special Branch police procedural series.
Read an Excerpt
The Bride Box
By Michael Pearce
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2013 Michael Pearce
All rights reserved.
Gareth Cadwallader Owen, The Mamur Zapt, Head of the Khedive's Secret Police, was sitting in his office, the blinds drawn against the sun, grappling with the latest misdeeds of the Brotherhood, when Nikos, his official clerk, came in looking pale.
'Miss Skiff to see you.'
Miss Skiff was the elderly and eccentric English lady who ran the Cairo Dispensary for Sick Animals.
Owen's responsibilities, although wide, did not in his view extend to sick animals. He turned back to the Brotherhood. 'You sort it,' he said.
After a while he became aware that Nikos was still standing there. 'Well?'
'She has a girl with her.'
'A little girl,' said Nikos with emphasis.
Owen thought he understood. Nikos was not a family man. Owen sometimes suspected that his most intimate relationships were with the steel filing cabinets that filled his office. People, he was not good at; children, he could not make out at all. They filled him with alarm. He sometimes saw them from his window. They milled about in an unruly and unpredictable way. How did you deal with them? How, so to speak, did you come at them?
'Oh, very well,' said Owen, and got up from his desk. He went through into Nikos's office. Miss Skiff was sitting there with a little Egyptian girl, holding her by the hand.
'Captain Owen ...'
Fraser, an engineer on the Egyptian railways, had been going along the carriages of the train that had just come in from Luxor, checking the bearings for sand, when something had stirred in the darkness at the end of the carriage he was under. He crawled up to it and was surprised to find that it was a little girl squashed up in the space above the wheels. When he had hauled her out she had put up her hand to shield her eyes against the sudden brightness of the sun. And then the whole front of her face had fallen off.
'It gave me quite a turn,' he confessed afterwards at the bar.
Unnecessarily, it turned out, since what had come off was not in fact the front of her face but a dense layer of flies which had settled on a raw wound that they were concealing.
Still, that was bad enough and he felt that something ought to be done about it. But what?
'I mean, I had the rest of the train to examine,' he explained to his cronies at the bar.
'So what did you do?'
'Well, I thought at first of taking her to the hospital, but the Victoria is a long way from the Pont Limoun and, as I say, I had the rest of the train to do. But then I hit upon the answer. Miss Skiff's outfit is just up the road.'
'But that's for animals!'
'But she would know about wounds, wouldn't she? Anyway, I took the little girl along. I'll admit she was a bit surprised but she took her in. And I finished the train and went home for supper. Actually, I was a bit worried about it afterwards. I mean, you ought to report these things, oughtn't you? But to whom?'
'I suggested that to Miss Skiff, but she wasn't having any of it. Apparently, she had not got on too well with the police over some of her stray animals. And she had been talking to the girl, and said that was not the right thing to do. "This is a case for the Mamur Zapt," she said.'
The Mamur Zapt was a traditional post in the Egyptian government. Indeed, some claimed that he was the Khedive's right-hand man. Less traditionally, but like many of the other senior posts in the government, it was occupied today, in 1913, not by an Egyptian but by an Englishman. A few years before, the British had been invited to sort out Egypt's chaotic finances and, well, they had stayed. The effective ruler of Egypt was not the Khedive, nor his unfortunate Prime Minister, but the British High Commissioner who, in the interests of better administration – so he said – had installed his own British men in most of the country's senior posts. Including that of Mamur Zapt.
The present occupier of the post was not, actually, as he frequently but fruitlessly pointed out, an Englishman but a Welshman, which put him at a certain distance from both sides. He was loyal, or, as some claimed, disloyal to both sides. Anyway, in the High Commissioner's view – but not the Khedive's – this made for greater efficiency. In Owen's view it merely meant that he could be stabbed in the back by both sides.
'Hello!' said Owen. 'What's your name?'
The little girl was tongue-tied.
'Mine is Gareth,' he said easily. 'It's a funny name, I know, but that's because it's foreign. I come from England ...' This was stretching a point, because he was Welsh and proud of it. 'Where do you come from?'
As she remained silent, he said, 'Let's see if I can guess: is it Luxor?'
The little girl shook her head.
He tried several other places.
'You've got me beat,' he said at last.
The little girl gave a triumphant smile. 'Denderah,' she whispered softly.
'Really? Well, that's a long way away! And you came all that way on the train? It can't have been very comfortable, under the train like that.' Nikos had showed him a briefing note as he came in. 'Was it dusty?'
The little girl nodded.
At least this man spoke in a language she could understand. Fraser had been totally incomprehensible to her.
'And the sand blew up, too, I expect. Did it get in your eyes?'
She nodded again.
'And in your mouth, I'll bet. Did you try to spit it out?'
He gave a mock spit. The little girl gazed at him, amazed.
Then, tentatively, she followed suit.
Owen gave a yet bigger spit.
The little girl's face, so far as he could see it behind Miss Skiff's bandaging, broke into a delighted smile and she gave a huge spit.
They rivalled each other for a moment or two before Nikos's horrified eyes.
'Captain Owen ...' Miss Skiff began.
'I'll bet you're thirsty after all that! Would you like a drink?'
On Nikos's desk, as in all offices in Cairo, was a pitcher of water. It was covered with a cloth, not just to keep out the sand, which came in through the shutters and lay in a thin film upon every surface, but to keep the water cool. A suffragi came in regularly and dipped the cloth in a bowl of ice and water and then wrapped it round the pitcher again.
Owen poured out a glass and gave it to the little girl.
'What did you say your name was?'
'Leila,' she said softly.
Gradually he teased her story out of her. Her mother had died giving birth to a little brother, who also had not lasted long. Her father had taken another wife and this time the wife was not so nice. For a time a bigger sister had protected her but then the sister had gone away. Then one day a white man had come and she had been told to go away with him.
'White man?' said Owen.
'Yes. But he wasn't very nice.' And there were other men, too, some with whips. And a lot of children like her. And they all started walking. And one of the men had said they were going to the sea and would get on a boat. But Leila had not wanted to go on a boat and had run away.
And now Owen understood why Miss Skiff had been so adamant that the little girl should be taken to the Mamur Zapt to tell her story.
'I thought the slave trade had been stamped out,' said Owen's friend Paul at the Sporting Club that evening. Paul was an ADC to the High Commissioner and Owen often found it useful to run things past him before they got out into the open and too many people had a hand in them.
'If it had been the Sudan, I would have understood it,' said Owen.
'Don't let them hear you saying things like that,' said Paul. 'They think they've stamped it out, too.'
The Sudan, that vast country, larger than India, which lay to the south of Egypt, was jointly governed by Egypt and Britain. There, too, there was a difference between appearance and reality. While formally the Sudan was a condominium, jointly governed by Egypt and Britain, in practice the British ran the show. Once their troops had re-conquered the Sudan – in the name of Egypt – some years before, the British had stayed there, too. It was Englishmen not Egyptians who were the District Commissioners and the country was governed from Khartoum. There, too, the slave trade had been put down – supposedly. It was one of the pretexts for the British invasion.
The Sudan had been the great slave market of Africa. Here traders had brought their captives from the south to be traded and sold on to the markets of the Middle East. Egypt had been one of those markets. In Egypt now the slave trade had been largely stamped out, though rumour had it that it still persisted in parts of the south, along the border with the Sudan.
The Sudan government hotly denied it and were zealous in their efforts to quash it, but the rumour persisted.
'I was thinking of having a word with their Slavery Bureau,' said Owen.
'It sounds as if you'd do better to have a word with our Slavery Bureau,' said Paul. 'If it still existed.'
The Egyptian Slavery Bureau had been abolished recently in the name of economy.
'My people won't want to hear about this,' said Paul. 'They think they've put slavery behind them, and won't want to restart the machinery for suppression. It's too costly.'
'So who do I have a word with?'
'A good question.'
'I thought you might —'
'Have a word with my boss? Yes. I will. But I'm not sure he'll want to know. Doing anything will cost money and he hasn't got any. Not until the next financial year.'
'It will be too late by then. They'd be out of Egypt.'
'It looks as if you're on your own, then.'
'Not me. It's really nothing to do with me. It's not political.'
The Mamur Zapt reckoned to concern himself only with political matters.
And meanwhile there was the question of what to do with Leila. Paul said that he thought they could find some institution which could look after her. Again, however, Miss Skiff was having none of it.
'They'd steal her back,' she said.
'Steal her?' The thought had not occurred to him.
'It would be better if she went home with you,' said Miss Skiff firmly.
Owen was not so sure about that. How would Zeinab react, for one thing?
He put it to her.
Zeinab was taken aback. She felt sorry for the child and wouldn't mind helping; but broad sympathy was one thing and having a child about the house where you would always be tripping over her was quite another. The prospect was faintly alarming.
Like Nikos, she was not used to children. She was the next best thing to an only child. She had a half-brother but he was much older than she was and they had never been close. Never, in fact, had much contact at all. He had not been around for years, hurried out of Egypt a while ago following an abortive attempt on the Khedive's life.
Zeinab was not, actually, Nuri Pasha's legitimate daughter. Her mother had been a famous courtesan who had resisted Nuri's repeated proposals of marriage, preferring to keep her independence. And her daughter had taken after her, insisting on cutting her own way through life. Nuri, modern-minded in some things, had gone along with this, seeing only that she received a proper (i.e. boy's) education along French lines. (Like many rich Egyptians he had no time for Egypt but plenty of time for France. England was a necessary evil.) Having done this he got out of the way and gave Zeinab her head. He had not frowned upon her relationship with Owen. There were, after all, advantages for a wily and eternally hopeful politician in having the Mamur Zapt as a sort of son-in-law.
But Zeinab had not exactly had a normal family upbringing. Nuri had doted on her as on her mother but had not actually had much to do with her. Her closest relationships had been with servants – or, in truth, with slaves – of whom, of course, given that this was a Pasha's household, there had been plenty. Not much difference, in fact, existed between slaves and servants. The result was that Zeinab, who thought of herself as a French liberal, was not too bothered about the slavery issue.
When she had moved in with Owen, she had not taken any slaves with her. Because of his special position, Owen, unusually among Europeans in Cairo, had no servants. Zeinab hadn't minded this. To her it was rather exotic, one of the many exotic things that had drawn her to Owen.
She had never had anything to do with children. Lately, one of her friends, Aisha, had had a baby. Zeinab had held it in her arms and, once she had got used to it, quite liked the experience. She wouldn't mind having a baby herself. In fact, at nearly thirty, perhaps she had better get on with it.
But having a grown child in the house was a bit different. She wasn't sure about that.
Not only that, the child was ... different. She was, for a start, darker than Zeinab, or, indeed most Egyptians.
'She looks Sudani,' she said to Owen.
'She comes from Denderah,' he said. But he knew what Zeinab meant. Leila's features were not those of an Arab. But then, nor were those of many Egyptians. Still ...
And then there was the question of colour. Again, this was not unusual among Egyptians, particularly those living in the south, where races had mixed over time. All the same, Leila's face was a bit ... different.
Not that it mattered. The girl was only going to be with them for a short time. It was just that it was difficult for Zeinab to feel close to her. Not like a mother but, say, like an aunt. She told Leila to call her 'aunt'.
But there were practical things, too. What was the girl going to do all day? Zeinab hadn't the faintest idea. She consulted Aisha.
'Don't be daft!' said Aisha. 'Give her some things to play with. I'll let you have some of ours. And if you're really bothered, get someone in – a maid or a nurse or something.'
But that would mean having a servant in the house and Zeinab was not sure how Owen would feel about that.
Owen, as a matter of fact, was already toying with the idea. But for a different reason. He had been left uneasy by Miss Skiff's suggestion that the slavers might try to steal Leila back. What if they did that while he was out of the house?
He didn't want to have a guard. He had never gone in for guards and wasn't going to start now. But maybe, just while Leila was here ...
An idea came to him. There was a man he knew, Musa, who had been in the police and whom Owen had borrowed on occasion and found reliable. He was now retired and working, so Owen had heard, as a part-time servant in several wealthy houses. People liked to employ ex-policemen in that capacity. There was some – well, better than none, anyway – guarantee of honesty and they were usually good at polishing things. Like ex-army people. Come to think of it, hadn't Musa served in the army as well? That might come in handy.
He sent for Musa and explained the situation to him. Musa would be glad to come, not just for the money but also for the prestige of working for the Mamur Zapt.
'Nights as well, Effendi? I can sleep on the floor.'
Owen thought. 'That might be a good idea,' he said.
Musa shuffled his feet. 'Can I bring my wife?' he asked. 'She would sleep on the floor, too,' he added quickly.
'I don't see why not. It would only be for a short time.'
There could even be other advantages to this. He knew that Zeinab felt uneasy at having a child around.
'Have you any children?' he asked.
'Three,' said Musa. 'But they're grown up now.'
'Would your wife mind looking after the girl?'
'She'd jump at the chance!' said Musa.
Zeinab's friend Aisha was married to a colleague of Owen's. Not exactly a colleague, since Mahmoud worked for the Parquet, and the Parquet, staffed by lawyers anxious to keep their distance from the government, and especially from the Mamur Zapt, whose legitimacy they (along with a lot of other people in Cairo, not all of them Egyptians) denied, tried to steer clear of anything to do with the Secret Police.
The Parquet was the Department of Prosecutions of the Ministry of Justice. The Egyptian system followed the French and not the British. Investigating a crime was the responsibility not of the police but of the Parquet. When a crime was committed, the police reported it to the Ministry of Justice, who passed it on to the Parquet to handle. The Parquet officer assigned to the case, a lawyer, looked into the matter and decided if there was a case to answer. If he thought there was he would bring the evidence together and present it to the Court. It was then his responsibility to prosecute and carry the case through to sentencing.
Mahmoud, one of the Parquet's bright young men, had just reached the stage in his career when things got difficult. That is, in Egypt, they got political. Egypt was a country of a multiplicity of nationalities, many religions, many diverse ethnic groups and several legal systems. There was the French-based national legal system, the Muslim law-based system, presided over by the Kadi, with its own independent laws and courts, and in addition a complicated financial and legal system known as the Capitulations, under which any citizen of another country could elect to be tried by a consular court set up by that country, answering to that country's law and judgements.
Enterprising criminals soon learnt the skills of switching rapidly from one nationality to another, delaying the prosecution, the verdict and the consequences. The system made the Parquet lawyers tear their hair out, and Egypt was a great place for crooks.
Excerpted from The Bride Box by Michael Pearce. Copyright © 2013 Michael Pearce. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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I have read this series straight through, and about ten years ago. I remembered loving the books, but when I returned to them, they are so much more detailed and I enjoy the subtle humor, cultural details and historical passages of time.