Click here to download a PDF excerpt of Garment of Shadows, the twelfth Mary Russell novel, or see below for more:
I was in bed. A bed, at any rate.
I had been flattened by a steam-roller, trampled under a stampede of bison. Beaten by a determined thug. I ached, head to toe, fingers and skin. Mostly head.
My skull throbbed, one hot pulse for every beat of my heart. I could see it in the rhythmic dimming of an already shadowy room. I wanted to weep with the pain, but if I had to blow my nose, my skull might split like an overripe melon.
So I lay in the dim room, and watched my heart beat, and ached.
Some time later, it came to me that the angle of the vague patch of brightness across the opposite wall had changed. Some time after that, an explanation slipped out between the pain-pulses: The sun had moved while I slept. A while later, another thought: Time is passing.
And with that, a tendril of urgency unfurled. I could not lie in bed, I had to be somewhere. People were depending on me. The sun would go down: I would be late.
Rolling onto my side was like pushing a motorcar up a hill. Raising myself up from the thin pad made me cry out—nearly black out—from the surge of pressure within my skull. My stomach roiled, my ears rang, the room whirled.
I crouched for a long time on the edge of the bed. Slowly, the pounding receded. My vision cleared, revealing a snug, roughly plastered room; hand-made floor tiles; a tawny herringbone of small bricks; a door of some dark wood, so narrow a big man might angle his shoulders, a hook driven into it, holding a long brown robe; a pair of soft yellow bedroom slippers on the floor—babouches, my mind provided: new leather, my nose told me. The room’s only furniture was a narrow bed with a rough three-legged stool at its head. The stool served as a table, its surface nearly covered with disparate objects: in the centre stood a small oil lamp. To its left, nearest the bed, were arranged a match-box, a tiny ceramic bowl holding half a dozen spent matches, a glass of water, and a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles that appeared to have been trod upon. The other side of the lamp had an even more peculiar collection: a worn pencil stub, a sausage-shaped object tightly wrapped in a handkerchief, some grains of sand, and one pale stone.
I studied the enigmatic display. The little bowl caused a brief memory to stir through the sludge that was my brain: As I slept, the sound of a match scratching into life would wake me; the sharp smell would bite my nostrils; faces would appear and make noises; I would say something apparently sensible; the faces would bend over the light, and with a puff, I would be back in the shadows, alone.
My hand reached out, hesitated over the water, rejected it, and picked up the spectacles instead. I winced as they settled between my ears and the snug head wrap I wore, but the room came into focus.
The matches also came into focus: a cheap, bright label, in French. I picked up the box, slid it open, my nose stung by the smell of sulphur. Four matches. I took one, scraped it into life, held it to the oil lamp. A spot of warmth entered the room.
By its thin light, I looked down at what I wore. Drab homespun trousers and tunic. Bare feet. The clothing was clean, but not my hands. They looked as if someone had tried to wipe away a layer of some dark greasy matter, leaving stains in the deeper creases and under the nails.
I stretched the left one out nearer the lamp. Motion caused the flame to throw dancing shadows across the room. When it had steadied, I frowned at the finger-nails to which I was attached.
The light of a candle/the sunshine smell of linen/the slope of ceiling/the soft throat of a young girl asleep/the blood on my hands—
The bolt of memory shocked me to my feet. I swayed, the room roaring in my ears, my eyes fixed on the flat, slope-free ceiling. Don’t look down (blood on my hands)—don’t think about the hand’s memory of the smooth, intimate glide of sharp steel through flesh.
I ventured a step, then another, towards the shuttered window.
To my surprise, the latch flipped beneath my awkward fingers, and when the hinges creaked open, there were no bars. Why had I expected to be a prisoner?
The brilliance was painful, even though the sky was grey with unshed rain. I lifted a hand to shade my eyes, and squinted at the view: a dirty, cobbled lane far too narrow for any motorcar. One could have passed an object between opposing windows—had there been windows. I saw only one, higher even than mine, tiny and tightly shuttered. I could see two entranceways off this diminutive alley: One had been painted with brightly coloured arabesques, long ago, and comprised a small door inside a larger one, as if the carpenter had learned his craft on castles and cathedrals. The door across from it was a single rectangle, black wood heavily studded with rusting iron circles the size of my thumb-nail. Around them, grubby whitewash, a fringe of grass on the rooflines, chunks of plaster flaking from walls that bulged and slumped. In one place, wooden braces thirty feet from the ground kept two buildings from collapsing into each other.
The house I was in seemed to be the lane’s terminus; thirty feet away, beneath the slapdash web of braces, the passageway turned to the right and disappeared.
I pushed the shutters wider open, intending to lean out and examine the face of the building below me, then took a step back as the left-hand door came open and a woman emerged. She was swathed head to toe in pale garments, with a straw bag in one hand and a child’s hand in the other. She glanced down the alleyway, her eyes on a place well below me, and I could see her brown, Caucasian features and startling blue eyes. She pulled her scarf up over her face and tugged the child down the lane, vanishing around its bend.
Arabic; French; woman in a robe—djellaba, the internal dictionary supplied, although that did not seem quite right. Those clues combined with the woman’s Berber features suggested that I was in North Africa. Algeria or perhaps Morocco. In a suq.
The knowledge of where was just beyond my grasp, like an elusive name on the tip of one’s tongue. Similarly, how I came to be here. And what had been so urgent it drove me to my feet. Or why I had blood on my hands.
Or, my name.
Who the hell was I?
Sweat broke out all over my body, despite the cold of the room. There was a good explanation, for everything. One that I would remember in a minute, once I could think around the pounding in my head. Or . . .
I turned to consider the narrow door. The shutters hadn’t been locked. Yes, the window was high and the drop to the lane sheer, but perhaps it meant that my situation was not the source of that feeling of urgency. That the water in the glass was not drugged. That the door led to assistance, to information. To friends, even.
My bare feet slapped across the cold tiles. I stopped beside the bed, transferring everything but the lamp, water, and bowl into my pockets, then moved over to the door and put my ear to the crack: nothing. My fingers eased the iron latch up until the tongue came free; the wood shifted towards me. I was not locked in.
The odours that washed over me threatened to turn my stomach over. Frying oil, onions, chicken, a panoply of spices—for some reason, I felt that if I were more experienced with their names, I would be able to identify each individual element of that sensory cloud.
I pushed aside the evidence of my nostrils, concentrating instead on my vision. The scrap of corridor was no more revealing than the view from the window: the same rough herringbone on the floor, cobalt-and-cream tiles halfway up the walls, with crisp whitewashed plaster above; another door; a tidy stack of straw baskets; the suggestion of a house off to the left. I took a step out: To my right, a stone stairway curled upward out of view—to the roof, I felt, although I could not have said why. Then I heard a voice—two voices, so distant, or behind so many doors, that I could not determine the language, much less the words.
But I could hear the tension.
For some reason, I reached around to the back of my waist-band, my fingers anticipating a cold weight nestled against my spine, but there was nothing. After a moment’s consideration, I drew a breath, and stepped out. Nothing happened.
I crept down the hall to the left and took up a position just before the bend, not venturing my head into the open. The voices were clearer now, the rhythms suggestive of Arabic. Cool air moved across my face and the light around the corner was daylight, not lamps, as if the walls of the house had been sliced away. Words trickled into my mind. Dar: a house of two or three storeys built around a ground-level courtyard, open to the sky; halka: its wide central sky-light; riad: a house whose inner courtyard was a garden.
Another brief internal flash: clipped green rectangle/rain-soaked brick walls/figures in academic gowns/the odour of learning—
I was gathering myself for a step towards that light when a harsh sound juddered through the house, coming from below and behind me at the same time. I hurried back into my tiny cell and across the tiles to peer downwards into the narrow lane—
No mistaking that blue uniform and cap: two armed French soldiers, pounding on the door below.
Aimless urgency blew into open panic: I could not be taken by them, it was essential that I remain free, that I get to—
To where? To whom? But while I might have given a single gendarme the benefit of the doubt, armed soldiers could only be a declaration of war. I snatched the robe from the hook, stepped into the slippers, and made for the curve of steps leading up.
The upper door’s iron latch opened easily. Outside was a terrace roof around an iron-work grid, open to the house below. On one side was strung a bare laundry line; the furniture consisted of six pots of winter-dead herbs and a pair of benches. The rooftop was empty—had I known it would be?—but it smelt of rain, the drips on the clothes-line showing that it had been recent. The air was very cold.
I worked the robe over my head—it was like a sack with a hood, and to my relief smelt only of wool and soap. I picked up the stick supporting the centre of the clothes-line and brought down one slippered foot on its centre, snapping it in two; jamming the sharp end beneath the door would slow pursuit. And the rope itself—that would be useful. I reached for my ankle, but found only skin where my fingers seemed to expect a knife.
Neither knife nor handgun: not friends, then.
I abandoned the line to make a quick circuit of the rooftop, keeping well clear of the open grid, lest someone looking up see me. All around lay a tight jumble of buildings, their rooftops—squared, domed, and crenellated; brick and stone and tile; crisply renovated or crudely patched or on the point of collapse—at a myriad of levels, like the world’s largest set of children’s blocks. The town covered slopes dropping into a valley; higher hills, green with winter rains, lay in the distance. Here and there, tree-tops poked up between the structures, but there was no discernable break for roads, and the buildings were so intertwined that they appeared to be resting atop one another. Certainly they were holding each other upright—I had seen that from the window below. Several green-roofed minarets sticking above the architectural confusion confirmed that I was in North Africa.
As I circled the rooftop, my fingers automatically laid claim to a few small items left by the women-folk whose territory this was—a pocket-mirror with cracked glass, a tiny pot of kohl, a pair of rusting scissors too delicate to part the laundry rope—and automatically thrust them through the djellaba’s side-slits to the pockets beneath.
The circuit ended, I was faced with a decision: The easiest descent was the most exposed; the most surreptitious way might well kill a person with a head as dizzy as mine.
I looked out over the town, where a faint suggestion of emerging sun was bringing an impression of warmth to the grey, tan, and whitewashed shapes. Weeds sprouted on every flat surface, and storks’ nests. Weren’t those supposed to be good luck? I hoped so. The town’s overall texture had an almost tactile satisfaction that reminded me of something. Something I had seen, touched—honeycomb! But not comb neatly bounded by a wooden frame: wild honeycomb, with orderly hexagons filling up the bumps and hollows of rock or tree. My eyes squinted, making the town blur; the aroma of honey seemed to rise up . . .
Stop: time for decisions, not distractions. I went to the low wall overhanging a neighbour’s house—then ducked down as a door twenty feet away scraped open and two women came out, arguing furiously in a language I did not know. As I vacillated between waiting for this safer route and risking the other, the door behind me rattled.
Without further consideration, I scurried across the rooftop, pushed through a narrow gap, and dropped down to a wall-top eight feet below. My earlier glance had shown me a glimpse of tiled courtyard through the branches of an orange tree, with this foot-thick wall separating it from a derelict garden next door. I settled my yellow babouches onto the weedy bricks, fixed my gaze on the vestigial window-sill twenty feet away, then balanced like a tight-rope walker across the ragged surface to the abandoned building beyond. Fearful of pursuit, I stepped over the gap and inside—and my heart instantly seized my throat: The brick walls bled light like lace-work; the floor was mostly missing. The entire structure seemed to sway with the addition of my weight.
I stood motionless until bits of mortar and wood stopped drifting down. The breath I took then was slow, but fervent.
Moving with extreme caution, I drew the hand-mirror from my inner pocket and, keeping it well away from the light, held it up to reflect the rooftop behind me. The soldiers came into view.
Their backs were to me. I could hear them shouting at the women on the adjoining rooftop, but either they answered no, they hadn’t seen me, or (more likely) they retreated inside at the first sight of strange men. The soldiers then began the same circuit I had made.
Ending up staring right at me.
I held the glass absolutely still, lest a flash of reflection give me away. They seemed . . . wrong, somehow, although I could not have said why. Clean-shaven, dark-eyed, their uniforms like any others.
But French soldiers did not belong on a rooftop of that shape.
The men were surveying the tiled courtyard. One of them pointed down and said something. His companion turned briskly for the door. The first took another look around the edges, then he, too, left the rooftop.
Shakily, I lowered myself to the floor. The stable tiled island beneath me did not collapse and the wall, appearances to the contrary, seemed stout enough to support my back. Through a hole, I could see a portion of the neighbouring courtyard. In a few minutes, the military caps appeared. I listened to the soldiers berating the confused and frightened owner, whose French was clearly inadequate for the task of self-defence. Eventually, they left. I waited, the looking-glass propped against a hundred-weight of fallen plaster. Half an hour later, motion came again to the rooftop I had so hastily left.
Between the overcast sky and the dullness of the reflection, it was difficult to make out details of the two people who walked across the rooftop. I abandoned the looking-glass to stand, warily, and peer around the splintery boards that had once framed a window. A man and a woman, she in white drapery, he in a sackcloth robe over shirt and trousers, his turban a circle of cloth revealing the crown of his head. They looked around the rooftop, down the edges, into the neighbouring courtyard, appearing less angry than confused. I was tempted to call out to them, to give them a chance—but that sense of urgency had returned, growing ever stronger as I sat trapped in the crumbling building.
And, they had taken my weapons.
I was blind, no doubt about that. But as the blind are forced to rely on their other senses to find their way (a man, in a heavy fog, explaining the phenomenon—but the image was gone before it was there), so would I rely on what senses I had left, to make my decisions.
I did not call out.
Instead, I waited for the pair to leave. It was cold, so it did not take long. When I was alone—so far as I could tell—I stepped through the hole again and onto the wall.
And paused. A sound rose across the city, a prolonged exhortation. It was joined a minute later by another, then a third farther away. The mid-day call to prayer, a chorus of reminders ringing out across the town, muezzins declaring the greatness of God, reminding the citizens that prayer is better than sleep.
I had heard it before, and yet I had not. I knew it, and yet I was a stranger. I could recite the words, yet I was quite sure they were not my own. Its meaning frightened me; its beauty moved me deeply.
And I must stop succumbing to distraction! I pushed away its spell and dropped into the derelict garden on the other side. While the sound of the adhan faded, I picked my way through weeds and assorted rubbish, startling a pair of cats and slicing a hole in my slippers. On the other side of the garden was a shorter wall and a heap of something that might have been unused tiles. I climbed up, and peered over.
Here was another narrow alleyway, with another pair of stout nail-clad doors, to the right and to the left. Unlike the first passageway, this semi-tunnel opened onto a marginally wider, and more populated, near-street (though even that was too narrow for motorcars). A woman in voluminous ash-coloured garments went past the opening. Two chattering children trotted in the other direction, one of them balancing on his head a tray bigger than he was, carrying loaves of unbaked bread. The children were followed by a donkey with a long wooden bench of fresh-cut cedar strapped to his back, a lad with a switch moving him along. I gathered the hem of my djellaba, scrambled over the wall, and dropped to the damp, slick stones.
My skull seemed to be resigning itself to the abuse; I only needed to lean against the wall for a minute or so before the pounding and spinning receded, and I no longer had to fight back the urge to cry out. When I felt steady, I tugged the robe’s hood over my head and walked down the dark passageway towards the street.
For some reason, I expected to find the narrow streets bustling with activity, but the human beehive was all but deserted. Shops were padlocked. Few donkeys pressed through with their burdens. One of the lanes was so still, I could hear the sound of a buried stream through the paving stones. As I moved into the city, I began to wonder if some awful pestilence had struck my fellows as well. Was the entire populace hiding behind its shutters, infected with my same mental distress, terrified of venturing into the light? Were it not for the unconcerned pace of the occasional shrouded woman who went past and the cries of a group of boys playing in a side-street, I might have begun pounding on doors to find out.
But those residents I passed were clearly untroubled. And the air did not smell of death and corruption. It smelt, rather, of spices and meat.
I stopped, studying a building that faced the street. There were no windows on the lower storeys, but at the top, two small glass-paned openings were propped open, giving out a loud stream of women’s voices.
I lowered my gaze to the ground floor: shutters on what was clearly a shop of some kind. My brain made a huge effort, and presented me with an explanation: The effect of desertion was merely because the shops were closed tight, and the men were at prayer. It was a holiday—rather, a holy day. Today must be Friday, the Moslem Sabbath.
The sound of footsteps echoed down the hard surfaces and started me moving again. I took care to walk at a steady pace, holding my body as if I not only knew where I was going, but was interested in nothing particular outside of getting there.
How I knew to do this, I could not think.
It was unnerving, as if one portion of my mind was simply frozen solid. I had no idea where I was going—where I was to begin with—yet I moved forward now as I had walked the precarious wall earlier: with the unthinking assurance that can only come from long experience. The analytical machinery of my mind also seemed to be missing on a couple of cylinders: To have had blood on my hands yet none on my garments suggested that someone (in that house?) had removed my clothing, surely noticing that I was a woman, yet then dressed me in what I knew was male clothing. Why had they done that? Similarly, I had lain in that bed for some hours with neither locks nor bonds, as if I was a guest rather than a prisoner, yet they had robbed me of my weapons—and then summoned the authorities: A pair of soldiers would not have happened down that alleyway by accident. Again, why?
I could not have given my reasons for wanting to put distance between myself and the house, but my body seemed determined to do so. And until I had evidence to the contrary, I could only trust that it knew what it was doing.
Some twenty minutes later, having come to the dead ends of four different paths, it was clear that letting my feet choose the way by turning consistently left—or right—only led to a standstill. Instead, I started looking for lanes that led uphill. And in a short time, I came to a more lively quarter with open shops. Men sat in some, all wearing the same calf-length, rough-spun robes but occasionally layered with a heavier burnoose. They wore a variety of head-coverings: Some had loosely wrapped lengths of cloth, others wore snug turbans that revealed the crowns of their heads and a single thin plait, some had the rigid caps called tarboosh or fez. The women picking over displays of onions and greens were for the most part veiled, though some went freely bare-faced. They all haggled: over the cost of lemons, the measure of olives, the quality of tin cups. Colourful displays of garments and tools spilt onto the street.
I moved at the same speed the others did; my eyes were focussed at the same distance ahead; my robes were theirs—the men even wore the same yellow babouches. I dodged laden donkeys and responded to the warning “Bâlak! Bâlak!” of their drivers and veered around displays and vendors without so much as a glance. I managed to walk past a pair of patrolling French soldiers without drawing any attention to myself. Several minutes later, I discovered that I had at some point removed my spectacles. I slid them through the pocket-slit in the djellaba, and when my empty hand came out again, it reached down to a display of fruit and deftly appropriated a small orange. As I proceeded through the streets, my pockets slowly filled, with fruit and a roll, a handful of almonds and a ball of twine, one decorative hair-pin, a small red Moroccan-leather note-book, a fat little embroidered purse plucked from a woman’s Western-style hand-bag, and a slim, decorated dagger that I kept inside my left-hand sleeve, fearing that if I put it into the pocket, within half a dozen steps it would slice its way to the cobblestones.
First an acrobat, now a pick-pocket. Had I escaped from some travelling circus?
I soon came to the explanation for this district’s relative bustle: a city gate, very new and strong-looking, ornate with mosaic tile (zellij, the translator in my head whispered). Beyond it was clearly a more modern part of this city, with men in suits, the sign for a bank, several horse-carts, even a motorcar. And: soldiers.
I leant casually against a wall. Armed French soldiers, with the bored stance and alert gaze of guards the world around. As I watched, they moved forward to intercept a man on a white mule, who freely handed over the immensely long Jezail rifle he held and continued inside. It would seem that arms were not permitted in the city. That might explain why my hand had met a revolver’s absence at my waist-band.
There was no way I could get past the soldiers without attracting attention, not in the clothes I wore now. Even were I to dress in a woman’s all-concealing shrouds, I would have to take care—although as with everything else that day, I could not have said how I knew that. My mind was in a shadowy netherland, but what knowledge I did retain was crystal clear. Uncertainty and inchoate fear seemed to sharpen the essentials, helping me to read the guards as easily as I had accumulated key possessions and walked unnoticed.
Still, until I knew more about my situation, I did not feel driven to break out of this suq. Whatever shelter, comfort, and time to ponder I might require, I could as easily find it here as out there.
I turned my back on the outer world, and descended once more into the dim-lit warren of the old town.
On the other side of a shop piled high with caged chickens stood a pocket handkerchief–sized café with a tureen of smoking oil and neatly arranged glasses of tea. As I had passed it before, my stomach vaguely let me know that its former queasiness was fading. Now, at the aroma of chillies and hot oil, my mouth began to water and I realised that I was weak with hunger. I dug into my pockets, then stopped: Fumbling with unfamiliar money, taken from a lady’s decorative purse, would be foolish. I spent a moment watching closely as a man purchased a small cornucopia of fried ambrosia, and forced myself to walk on.
At the next bit of blank wall, I surreptitiously drew out the purse, searching for the coin I had seen him use. There were two. I palmed them and put the rest away. Back at the fragrant food-stall, I nodded to the proprietor, lifted my chin at the glass case, raised an affirming eyebrow when his hand hesitated over a choice, and laid one of the coins on the tiny counter. I left my hand there until he slid some smaller scraps of metal into my palm, following them with a greasy handful of flat bread wrapped around an unidentifiable mouthful of spice. My jaws might have learnt table manners from a dog: Half a dozen sharp gulps, and the food was but a trace on my fingers—which I eyed, but did not lick: I needed to find a source of water, and soon.
In this same way, I obtained a bowl of extraordinarily hearty soup called harira, a sweet biscuit tasting of almonds, and two glasses of hot, syrupy mint tea.
The food did nothing to clear my brain, but it was little short of a miracle how it helped the shakiness recede.
And as if the suq’s guiding spirit had heard my plea, around the next corner was an open area where three of the diminutive lanes came together, which in any normal town would have gone unnoticed but here was tantamount to a village green. Set into one of the resulting corners was a magnificently tiled fountain, at the moment gushing water into a child’s brass pot. I waited while two women filled their jugs, then pushed forward to thrust my hands under the frigid clear water.
I could feel their disapproval, either because it was not done to wash one’s hands in a drinking fountain, or because I was (to all appearances) a man pushing into a woman’s realm, but I did not care. I scrubbed and clawed at my nails as if the stain were some systemic poison, and I kept on scrubbing even after my eyes assured me the skin was clean. I even splashed my face.
Finally, too aware of the waiting women, I drew back. In the centre of the open area, I held up my hands to reassure myself that the blood was gone. And for the first time, I noticed a faint indentation around the ring finger of my right hand.
I stared at it. I turned the hand over, then back, and felt a stir of rage. Take my weapons, yes, but steal a ring from my finger?
Had I been standing on the rooftop, I would have stormed the house, soldiers or no. But I had left that house hours ago; I’d never find it again.
Furious and mournful, I dried my hands on my robe and slipped back into the suq.
Since I was now both fed and cleansed, the next order of business was to find shelter against the night. The afternoon call to prayer had come and gone; in the short winter’s day, sunset would not be far off. And perhaps if I slept, my missing past might creep back. If nothing else, a private corner would let me paw through my few possessions, and my fewer memories, and consider where I stood.
The problem was, I had seen nothing that resembled an hotel. I had seen no hand-lettered Room to Let signs propped in windows (had there been windows). I had a vague idea that benighted travellers might be welcomed in a mosque or madrassa school, but that was far too risky for a woman in disguise. Even a caravanserai, or whatever the local equivalent might be, would be tricky. And although I spoke a couple of the local languages, I was loath to risk a demonstration of my ignorance by asking.
What I needed was another deserted building. Of which there seemed to be plenty, but I preferred one with a facsimile of a roof, and not on the point of collapse.
I kept walking, waiting for my bruised cortices to present me with an idea. A dull boom of cannon-fire shuddered over the town, startling a pair of egrets into flight, but it seemed to be merely a signal: The muezzins started up their sunset calls. More shops began to close. A wrinkled gent gave a friendly nod as he ran a chain through the iron loops on his shop’s door. Farther along, a shoe-seller picked up a basket filled with fresh-made babouches, and with the leather odour came a vivid jolt of memory: an avalanche of bright yellow slippers in a narrow lane/tannery smell and spice and sea-air/a donkey’s bray/men shouting/above it one man’s voice—
Then it was gone, and the shoe-seller was staring at me. I gave him an uncomfortable smile and continued on.
Across the way and down a few steps, a brass-worker was closing his doors on an Aladdin’s cave of gleaming metal and Mediaeval tools. His workshop opened, not directly off the street, but through a shallow arched entrance that provided supplemental display-space for his wares during the day.
My mind gave me a nudge. I walked on, bought a glass of orange juice from a man with one small basket of fruit left him, and drank it as I gazed back the way I had come, watching the brass-worker’s retreating figure.
Returning the empty glass, I walked on slowly, taking great care to recall my path. I lingered in deserted streets, I passed back and forth and circled about, until the dim lanes were going dark and the darker recesses were nearly black. I waited until a group of chattering men passed where I stood, and fell in behind them until we reached the brass-worker’s doorway. At the dark arched entrance, I took a step to the side.
My hands seemed to know, without benefit of sight, how to open a padlock with the straightened right earpiece of a pair of spectacles and a hair-pin. Yet another curious skill.
Inside, there were no lingering apprentices, no open courtyards to a family dwelling. A high window, gathering in the last of the day’s light, showed me the room: Banquettes along two of the walls, where customers would drink cups of tea, promised cushion for my aches; two gleaming eyes from a high shelf eyed me warily, but the resident cat stayed where it was. A patch of blackness beside the faint glow of the brazier proved to be charcoal, enough to keep me warm all night.
I had not realised how utterly wrung-out I was, until I stood in that safe place.
I barely made it to the cushions before my legs buckled, and there I sat, my knees pulled up to my chest, near to weeping with relief and exhaustion. If the soldiers had knocked at the workshop door, I would have flung myself at their feet.
I sat there a very long time before the trembling stopped.
The high window had gone dark, the cat’s eyes had vanished. The pain in my head, arms, and hip that I had kept at bay by movement and fear had taken over again, and it was an effort to work my hand into an inner pocket to pull out a piece of bread. I forced myself to eat it, then crawled over to add charcoal to the fire, lest it go out during the night.
By the flare of light, I examined my hands again, as if the dried blood might have returned. They were clean. I looked at my right hand, with its indentation, then at the left. The left hand was where Europeans in general wore a wedding ring; however, for some reason I felt quite certain that my people—Jewish: Wasn’t I Jewish?—put the ring on the right hand. That the narrow dent was from a wedding band. But why was the skin beneath it not pale? My hands were brown from the sun—much browner than the rest of my arms—and the colour was no different beneath the ring. Was I married? Had my husband died? Had he cast me out into the suq, for thievery?
I lowered my head to my knees, trying to think back over the day, trolling my memory for any kind of clue. I was in a North African city made up of an un-mappable tangle of tiny by-ways. Some of its buildings took the breath away with their beauty, their ornate tile-work crisp, their paint and carvings clean. Other houses were rotting shells on the edge of collapse, dangerous and stinking of decay.
One might almost think my damaged mind had created a town in its image.
Enough, I decided. I could do no more tonight. I was dimly aware that one was supposed to keep a concussion victim from sleep, but in truth, given a choice between staying awake any longer, and simply not waking up, I would take the risk.
I laid the decorative knife beside me on the cushion and tugged the hood over my face. As the world faded, again I smelt the faint aroma of honey.
In the morning, there was a tap at the door.
“Come!” Holmes called. He was at the window again, his breath making clouds in the cold air, attempting an analysis of the neighbourhood’s geometry. He crossed the room, rubbing his hands into circulation, and his nostrils flared at the aroma. “Salaam aleikum, Youssef,” he said.
“As salaamu aleik, Monsieur,” the servant replied. “Monsieur’s coffee.”
“Black as hell, thick as death,” Holmes muttered in Arabic, watching the slim hands pour the liquid into the miniature cup.
The dark eyes looked up in surprise, then Youssef ventured the first humour Holmes had been able to tease out of him. “If Monsieur wishes his coffee sweet as love, I shall need to bring more sugar.”
Holmes laughed. “Thank you, my brother, I will take it bitter.”
The man set the cup before Holmes, and said, “Few Europeans enjoy their coffee in this manner.”
“It is a preparation better suited to walking over the desert than driving in a motorcar,” Holmes agreed.
The Moroccan adjusted the spoon a fraction, tugged the tray’s cloth a centimetre, then left. In all the days of Holmes’ stay here, it was the most Youssef had said in his hearing.
When the tiny cup was empty but for the grit, Holmes’ nerves felt as if they had been connected to a low-voltage wall socket, but he felt vaguely dissatisfied until he spotted the carafe of drinking water on the side table. Water after coffee: another desert habit learned from the Hazr brothers.
Despite its Western-style renovations, Dar Mnehbi was a touch old-fashioned, a sumptuous expanse of tile and carpets with cramped private quarters, shared bath-rooms, few windows, and fewer fireplaces. The Residency, a short uphill stroll away, was an impressive, light-filled palace where guests could arrive in motorcars and be provided with taps that gushed hot water. Dar Mnehbi, deep inside the ancient walls of the medina, provided the French with a very different set of resources and messages. The Residency displayed power and flash; Dar Mnehbi made a clear statement of ferocious intent: The Resident General was an integral part of Fez, and he was here to stay.
Offered rooms in either place, Holmes had chosen to stop here rather than in the Residency, and had spent the past few days happily wandering the tangled streets that were equal parts Granada and Cairo, and wholly their own. Fez was the centre of Morocco, its heart and soul, rich and clever and lovely, and deadly as a Miniago stiletto. And its Resident General, manly and open with no taste for intrigue, was both unsuited for the task and the best hope of the country.
Yes, Holmes decided, he would return here with Russell before they sailed back to England. Having spent the past year in foreign parts, once they reached home, he doubted he’d prise her away from Oxford for a long time.
He coaxed a hot bath from the geyser (his last, he suspected, for some days), then packed his bag and left Dar Mnehbi, heading for the railway station.
Eleven days after leaving Fez—days filled to overflowing with sand, remote hills, the Arabic language, the Islamic world, and rather more excitement than Maréchal Lyautey would approve of his country having given one of its visitors—Holmes stepped off the train in Rabat, drawing a deep breath of the fresh sea breeze.
It was jarring, to go from a time spent far from motorcars and telephones, beds and newspapers, into the modern European bustle of Rabat. Holmes looked down at his travel-stained garments. He’d bundled away his disreputable djellaba, but in truth, the European trousers and jacket were not much of an improvement. He needed a bath, and a shave.
Rabat was enough of a European centre that, as he’d suspected, Fridays were less scrupulously observed than elsewhere in the Moslem world. Outside the train station, he brushed aside the mid-day clamour of hotel-boys and taxi drivers and headed to the portion given over to native trade. He picked out a cart with wheels that appeared to have seen grease in the past decade, addressing the startled driver in Arabic.
“Salaam aleikum. Do you know the Hotel de Lyons? Near the waterfront?”
“A’salaamu aleik,” the driver replied automatically. “Yes, of course. But—”
“Good.” Holmes threw his case into the back, and, after a murmured Bismillah, climbed in beside it.
The bemused fellow looked at his horse, at Holmes, and followed him up.
When Holmes had left Russell, seventeen days before, they’d agreed to meet on Friday the nineteenth, at the hotel where Fflytte Films was ensconced. He rather hoped she would be out when he arrived; no need to inflict his present disarray on her. And (here he fingered a neat circle near the hem of his jacket, wondering if he could contrive to make it look less like a bullet hole) no need to point out that he’d had a more interesting time than she.
Seventeen days before, there had seemed little point to him cooling his heels while she finished with her cinema project. And since he’d found a replacement for his rôle in the moving picture (a corpulent ex-headmaster who looked the very image of a modern Major-General—far more than Holmes ever did), he had packed a bag and merrily left his wife behind, to pay his respects to a distant cousin and explore a country he’d never seen.
He turned his attention to his driver, engaging him in fluent Arabic while absorbing the man’s gestures and the distinctive manner of driving (one never knew when one would need to act the part of a Moroccan horse-cart driver) and noting the details of the town around him. He saw more European faces on the short drive to the hotel than he’d seen the entire previous week—strolling the pavements, eyeing the windows, sipping coffee along sidewalk cafés. He had to agree with the Maréchal: A person would never believe that bloody rebellion seethed just 125 miles away.
They arrived at the hotel, which was run-down enough that a doorman did not instantly appear to order the cart and its passenger back into the street. Indeed, there was no doorman. Holmes climbed down, haggled cheerfully with the driver, and carried his own bag inside.
He recognised the figure at the desk, a Moroccan who pretended to be French; only after he had spoken to the man in that language did the man recognise him.
“Monsieur . . . ’Olmes?”
“The very same. Is my wife in?”
“Monsieur, your wife left us, long ago.”
Holmes’ arm checked; there was surely no reason for the cold sensation trickling into his chest. The film crew she was assisting had been delayed, that was all.
Four men looked around as he pushed open the door. All wore beards, turbans, and djellabas; three of them had the build of stevedores; one of them was six feet tall, an extraordinary height here. The youngest man, a slim figure whose beard was precisely trimmed and whose robe was more neatly tailored, spoke up, in French.
“You are in the wrong place, Monsieur.”
“I think not,” Holmes replied, then changed to Arabic. “I need to ask about one of the moving picture crew. You are just returned from the desert, I think?”
“The picture crew is off working on a boat,” the man said, sticking to French.
Holmes shifted back to that tongue, since the others were Berbers, and to at least one of them, Arabic appeared to be a closed book.
“My wife, Mary Russell, was with them when I left Rabat, but at the hotel, they tell me that she did not return with the others.” He slid his hand into his jacket, drawing out his note-case. He opened it, and removed several franc notes, which he tucked beneath the handle of a hammer that lay on the packing case by his side. He looked at them, and said simply, “I am concerned.”
The four men consulted in silence for a moment. One of the heavily bearded individuals said something in a language Holmes recognised, although he only spoke a few words of it. Thamazigth was the language of the Berbers of North Africa, and of an intriguing structure. One day, he intended to study it properly. Today he merely required communication.
“Do you know the person I mean? Tall, blonde, she wears spectacles.”
“A lady with . . . much assurance.”
“That’s a diplomatic way to phrase it. Did she go with the company to the desert?”
The slim young man’s eyes gave the briefest flick over the money, before he lifted himself onto a crate and took out a cigarette.
When he got it going—Holmes blamed the picture industry, for making every man a dramatist—he blew out a smoke cloud and answered, “Yes, she went along. But she did not come back.”
“Tell me what happened.”
“We were at Erg Chebbi, near Erfoud. You know Erfoud?”
“I know where it is. Past the bled and over the mountains to the Sahara proper.”
“Precisely. And that is why M. Fflytte took everyone there, because he wished to film the sand dunes for his picture. We warned him, there are few sheikhs in Erfoud.” He chuckled; two of the others did as well; the big man just stared.
“Such was the plan before I left,” Holmes said. “Why did she not come back with the others?”
“It was Tuesday night,” the dapper man persisted. “The filming was all but finished, although Monsieur Fflytte planned to spend the following day filming scenes he thought he might want. That were not written into the script, you understand?”
“So.” The man examined the end of his cigarette, flicking the ash until he was satisfied with its shape; the only thing that kept Holmes from going after him with the hammer was the knowledge that it would cause even more of a delay. “We had a very full day, on Tuesday, from before sunrise—M. Fflytte wished to capture the sunrise—to sunset, which he also desired to film. We had fallen upon our dinners like hyenas (How those pretty blonde English girls can eat!) and the younger ones had gone to their tents, while some of the others, as this would be their last night in the desert, lingered around the fire with cognac.
“Not the crew, you understand—not those of us who carried things and made arrangements with the local people. We had another fire, and were sitting there.
“So we were the only ones to see your Mademoiselle—rather, Madame—Russell—go away. She had gone to her tent,” he explained—Holmes’ hand twitched, craving the hammer handle— “before the other ladies, and a boy came to speak with her.”
“A boy? A young man?”
The Moroccan laughed, thinking he perceived the underlying question. “No, Monsieur, you need not be concerned with your wife’s virtue. No more than any European husband needs to be concerned, that is. He was young—one of many such who wandered in and out of the camp, you understand, selling small items, begging for coins. Occasionally stealing perhaps—we hired guards from the town, which helps to keep thievery down. In any case, the boy came to her tent, and they spoke.”
One of the others made a remark. The two talked back and forth for a minute in Thamazigth, then the spokesman returned to his narrative. “I am sorry, Monsieur, but Massim here says that it was not so much a case of the two speaking, as it was her asking questions.”
“You mean, the lad didn’t answer?”
“Not that Massim heard. And Massim’s hearing is very good, Bismillah.”
Massim looked at Holmes, and for the first time smiled, displaying a mouth like a smashed fence.
“So she asked the boy questions, but he didn’t understand her.” Which was unexpected: A young man accustomed to the camps of foreigners should speak either Arabic or French, in both of which Russell was fluent.
But the crewman shook his head. “Oh, he seemed to understand. Merely did not answer.”
“Did not, or could not?”
The three men consulted without speech. Massim gave a tiny shrug; the slim man admitted, “Perhaps could not. He seemed friendly enough towards her. And after all, they went off hand in hand.”
“Did they now?” The man’s face gave a little twist of chagrin, that he had been distracted into a premature revelation of the tale’s dénouement, but Holmes did not give him the chance to regain the floor. “When the boy came that night, did he loiter about for a time? Speaking with the young girls perhaps?”
“We did not notice him. He was Berber, not a desert-dweller, so he stood out a little. The first we saw of him, he was scratching at the door of Madame’s tent. The two talked—or, she talked—and they went inside for a time. When they came out, she was wearing the heavy djellaba she had bought in the village—a man’s djellaba,” he added disapprovingly. “The two of them walked away together, into the night. In the morning, she was not in her bed.”
“Had you seen the lad around the crew, before that night?”
The men agreed, no. “We thought he was one of the village urchins, even though the dunes are quite a walk from the town.”
“Wait—urchin? How old was he?”
“Oh, young. As I said, too young to be interested in the girls.”
“A child? Russell went off with a child ?”
“Put her hand in his and walked away into the desert.”
“But he must have said something to her, or given her a message of some kind.”
The other short man spoke up, his French ungrammatical and heavily accented. “He gave her a thing. Not letter, just small, I don’t know. She looked at it, very—” He said something to the other, who translated.
“What did she do with it? Did she hand it back to him?”
The man shrugged. “They went in tent. I don’t see, after.”
“She did not take a valise away with her?”
“Not that was told, Monsieur.”
“And she did not return, once she and the lad had left?”
“Again, Monsieur, who knows?”
The more fluent one commented, “But she must have expected to be away.”
I shall murder this fellow, Holmes thought. “Why do you say that?”
“Because she left a note. And her passport was missing.”
“What did the note say?”
“ ‘I have to go to Fez, I will come to Rabat later.’ In English, naturally. In any event, that is what I was told.”
“Did no one think it odd?”
“M’sieur Fflytte was irate, because as I said, he wanted to do a few more scenes the next day, but none of them were of importance, and in truth, he was finished with her. If it had been one of the girls who disappeared, we would have been concerned, but Miss—Mrs—Russell? The lady is formidable. Who could worry?”
Indeed. And yet, Sherlock Holmes worried.
The big man seemed to have the brains of a tortoise, but at Holmes’ expression, even he was beginning to look alarmed.
Holmes drew a calming breath, and started again. “So she left her tent that night. After dark.”
“And was still gone the next day.”
“She spoke to no one, merely left a brief note to say that she was going to Fez.”
The man nodded.
“The filming ended. The rest of you came back here. No one thought this odd. And all you have to say is that my wife was last seen walking into the desert in the company of a child. Three days ago.”
The train reached Fez just before noon.
Holmes walked directly to the first coffee house he saw, bustling with Saturday traffic.
Two hours and far too much coffee later, he went to find the facilities.
An hour after that, a young boy stepped inside, swept his brown eyes across the clientele, and walked over to Holmes’ tiny table.
A light-eyed Berber, too young to be interested in the girls.
“May I help you?” Holmes asked, in Arabic, then French.
The boy held out his hand—but it was curled slightly inwards: an invitation, not a beggar’s request. Holmes’ eyes narrowed.
“Do you understand me?” he asked.
The boy blinked an affirmative.
“Have you been in Erfoud?”
“Are you capable of speech?”
This time, a brief shake.
“You wish me to come with you.”
The lad stood back, and dropped his hand.
Holmes laid some coins on the table and followed him out the door, onto the street, up to the town, and through the streets of Fez el-Jdid (“New” Fez, a mere seven centuries old, as opposed to the twelve-hundred-year-old medina) between the Sultan’s palace and the Jewish quarters, before plunging once again into the incredible hotchpotch of tiny pathways that was Fez el-Bali—packed to bursting with all the human types of North Africa.
Holmes had spent five days meandering through the city on his previous visit, so he knew the primary routes. Just inside the Bou Jeloud gate, the main paths diverged, to join again near the city’s main mosque. The Dar Mnehbi complex was along the more southern track, Talaa Seghira. Now, however, at the Fasi equivalent of the village green where the ways split, the mute lad led him to the left, along the more northern Talaa Kebira.
Much of this area was covered by the rush matting that made the streets cool in the summer, but did nothing to warm them in the winter. The ways were dim and crowded, and Holmes would not have been surprised to feel a pick-pocket’s fingers, dipping into this foreign prey being led deep into the medina.
No thieves made a try at his pockets, but as they went, Holmes came to two conclusions. First, despite taking him the wrong way, the lad knew the city like the inside of his teeth. And second, he was looking for someone.
Twice, the boy paused to scramble onto a box or a step, peering along the heads or down an adjoining lane before hopping back down to the cobbles and pressing on. He repeated the act a third time just under the so-called water clock, a puzzling structure of protruding beams and brass bowls made all the more enigmatic by the local insistence that it had, at one time, been an actual clock.
But whatever—or whomever—the lad was looking for, he did not find it, diving back into the street and leading on, ever on.
Then he stopped, looked around him, and seemed to realise that he had overshot his goal. He turned south, wriggling through several by-ways so small, Holmes would have taken them for inadvertent gaps between the buildings, before finally popping back out onto the street a few doors up from Dar Mnehbi. The boy marched up to the broad double doors, banged on them with a small fist, then turned to give Holmes a cheery grin. The door opened; Youssef looked out, first at the boy, who seemed to surprise him, then at Holmes. He came to attention.
“Monsieur,” he said. “You have returned.”
“So it would seem,” Holmes said. “My young friend here— Wait! Stop!”
But the lad had taken off, sprinting into a crowd of ladies. By the time Holmes had struggled through the shocked and giggling women-folk, the boy was nowhere in sight.
Back at the entrance to Dar Mnehbi, Holmes looked at Youssef. “It would appear that I am to remain here until the young man returns for me. If you don’t mind?”
He was returned to the arms of the Resident General’s household as if he had never left, given the same rooms, brought a tray of the same excellent coffee, offered luncheon.
“I’d better use the bath first, and rid myself of these clothes. I shouldn’t wish to introduce fleas into Dar Mnehbi.”
He took his time, coaxing a quantity of very hot water out of the geyser. Again, he considered his beard in the looking-glass, and again decided to retain it. He wrapped his previous night’s clothing in the damp towel, to lock any wildlife inside, and rang to let Youssef know he was ready for his meal.
The quiet man was there in minutes, uncovering the tray, laying out a cloth, replacing the empty carafe of coffee with a fresh one. He had the good servant’s skill of efficient invisibility, with smooth motions that got the job done while attracting no attention. Quick, yet unobtrusive.
Holmes appreciated professionalism, in any profession.
As he tucked into a most pleasant couscous of spiced lamb and chickpeas, clean and warm before the room’s glowing brazier, the sounds of another arrival were a reminder of Lyautey’s manifold responsibilities. He must let the Maréchal know that a second round of entertaining this stray English relation was not required: He intended to leave, once he’d figured out why the boy had stashed him here.
When he had finished, he took his coffee over to the window. Windows in traditional Arabic architecture were primarily shuttered openings that faced inward, onto the central courtyard, to provide a basic amount of light and ventilation. Here, the French had breached the external walls of the dar’s upstairs guest-rooms with hinged windows. The sacrifice of security and privacy was well worth it, from Holmes’ European eyes, and the tantalising glimpses of gardens, streets, and rooftop terraces had proved the most desirable quality of the rooms during his stay.
Now, he flung the glass open and planted his shoulder against the frame, his cup balanced on the tiled sill. The town’s noise obscured the splash of the courtyard fountain, but the air was still fragrant. Somewhere, a canary trilled. He took out his tobacco, torn between simple pleasure and waspish impatience.
He would give Russell until the morning, before he turned the town upside-down.