The skiff was black, its gunwales scant inches above the waves. Like my two companions, I was dressed in dark clothing, my face smeared with lamp-black. The rowlocks were wrapped and muffled; the loudest sounds in all the night were the light slap of water on wood and the rhythmic rustle of Steven’s clothing as he pulled at the oars.
Holmes stiffened first, then Steven’s oars went still, and finally I too heard it: a distant deep thrum of engines off the starboard side. It was not the boat we had come on, but it was approaching fast, much too fast to outrun. Steven shipped the oars without a sound, and the three of us folded up into the bottom of the skiff.
The engines grew, and grew, until they filled the night and seemed to be right upon us, and still they grew, until I began to doubt the wisdom of this enterprise before it had even begun. Holmes and I kept our faces pressed against the boards and stared up at the outline that was Steven, his head raised slightly above the boat. He turned to us, and I could see the faint gleam of his teeth as he spoke.
“They’re coming this way, might not see us if they don’t put their searchlights on. If they’re going to hit us I’ll give you ten seconds’ warning. Fill your lungs, dive off to the stern as far as you can, and swim like the living hell. Best take your shoes off now.”
Holmes and I wrestled with each other’s laces and tugged, then lay again waiting. The heavy churn seemed just feet away, but Steven said nothing. We remained frozen. My teeth ached with the noise, and the thud of the ship’s engines became my heart-beat, and then terrifyingly a huge wall loomed above us and dim lights flew past over our heads. Without warning the skiff dropped and then leapt into the air, spinning about in time to hit the next wave broadside, drenching us and coming within a hair’s-breadth of overturning before we were slapped back into place by the following one, sliding down into the trough and mounting the next. Down and up and down and around we were tossed until eventually, wet through and dizzy as a child’s top, we bobbled on the sea like the piece of flotsam we were and listened to the engines fade.
Steven sat up. “Anyone overboard?” he asked softly.
“We’re both here,” Holmes assured him. His voice was not completely level, and from the bow came the brief flash of Steven’s teeth.
“Welcome to Palestine,” he whispered, grinning ferociously.
I groaned as I eased myself upright. “My shoulder feels broken and—oh, damn, I’ve lost a boot. How are you, Holmes?” It was barely two weeks since a bomb had blown up just behind him as he stood tending a beehive, and although his abrasions were healing, his skin was far from whole.
“My back survives, Russell, and your footwear is here.” Holmes thrust the boot at me and I fumbled to take it, then bent and pulled it and the one I had managed to hold on to back over my sodden woollen stockings.
“Why don’t they put more running lights on?” I complained.
“Troop ship,” explained Steven. “Still a bit nervous about submarines. There’re rumours about that some of the German captains haven’t heard the war’s over yet. Or don’t want to hear. Quiet with the bailing now,” he ordered. Taking the oars back in his hands, he turned us about and continued the steady pull to shore.
The remaining mile passed without incident. Even with the added water on board, Steven worked the oars with a strong, smooth ease that would have put him on an eights team in Oxford. He glanced over his shoulder occasionally at the approaching shore, where we were to meet two gentlemen in the employ of His Majesty’s government, Ali and Mahmoud Hazr. Other than their names, I hadn’t a clue what awaited us here.
Looking up from the bailing, I eventually decided that he was making for a spot midway between a double light north of us and a slightly amber single light to the south. Swells began to rise beneath the bow and the sound of breaking waves drew closer, until suddenly we were skimming through the white foam of mild surf, and with a jar we crunched onto the beach.
Steven immediately shipped his oars, stood, and stepped over the prow of the little boat into the shallow water. Holmes grabbed his haversack and went next, jumping lightly onto the coarse shingle. I followed, pausing for a moment on the bow to squint through my salt-smeared spectacles at the dark shore. Steven put his hand up to help me, and as I shifted my eyes downward they registered with a shock two figures standing perfectly still, thirty feet or so behind Holmes.
“Holmes,” I hissed, “there are two women behind you!”
Steven’s hand on mine hesitated briefly, then tugged again. “Miss Russell, there’ll be a patrol any minute. It’s all right.”
I stepped cautiously into the water beside him and moved up to where Holmes stood.
“Salaam aleikum, Steven,” came a voice from the night: accented, low, and by no means that of a woman.
“Aleikum es-salaam, Ali. I hope you are well.”
“Praise be to God,” was the reply.
“I have a pair of pigeons for you.”
“They could have landed at a more convenient time, Steven.”
“Shall I take them away again?”
“No, Steven. We accept delivery. Mahmoud regrets we cannot ask you to come and drink coffee, but at the moment, it would not be wise. Maalesh,” he added, using the all-purpose Arabic expression that was a verbal shrug of the shoulders at life’s inequities and accidents.
“I thank Mahmoud, and will accept another time. Go with God, Ali.”
“Allah watch your back, Steven.”
Steven put his hip to the boat and shoved it out, then scrambled on board; his oars flashed briefly. Before he had cleared the breakwater, Holmes was hurrying me up the beach in the wake of the two flowing black shapes. I stumbled when my boots left the shingle and hit a patch of paving stones, and then we were on a street, in what seemed to be a village or the outskirts of a town.
For twenty breathless minutes our path was hindered by nothing more than uneven ground and the occasional barking mongrel, but abruptly the two figures in front of us whirled around, swept us into a filthy corner, and there we cowered, shivering in our damp clothing, while two pairs of military boots trod slowly past and two torches illuminated various nooks and crannies, including ours. I froze when the light shone bright around the edges of the cloaks that covered us, but the patrol must have seen only a pile of rubbish and rags, because the light played down our alley for only a brief instant, and went away, leaving us a pile of softly breathing bodies. Some of us stank of garlic and goats.
The footsteps faded around a corner, and we were caught up by our guides as rapidly as we had been pushed down in the first place, and swept off again down the road.
This was the land my people had clung to for more than three thousand years, I thought with irony: a squalid, stinking village whose inhabitants were kept inside their crumbling walls by the occupying British Expeditionary Forces. The streets of the Promised Land flowed not with milk and honey but with ordure, and the glories of Askalon and Asdod were faded indeed.
The third time we were pushed bodily into a corner and covered with the garlic- and sweat-impregnated robes of our companions (neither of them women, as close proximity had quickly made apparent, despite the cheap scent one of them wore). I thought I should suffocate with the combined stench of perfume and the nauseous weeks-old fish entrails and sweetly acrid decaying oranges that we knelt in. We were there a long, long time before the two men removed their hands from our shoulders and let us up. I staggered a few steps away and gagged, gulping huge cleansing lungfuls of sea air and scrubbing at my nose in a vain attempt to remove the lingering smell. Holmes laid a hand on my back, and I pulled myself together and followed the men.
We covered perhaps six miles that night, though barely three if measured in a direct line. We froze, we doubled back, we went in circles. Once we lost one of the dark robed figures, only to have him rejoin us, equally silently, some twenty minutes and one large circuit later. With his reappearance we changed direction and started a straight run, inland and slightly north, which ended when I came up short against the back of one of them and he, or his companion, seized my shoulders, spun me around, tipped my head down with a hand like a paw, and shoved me through a short, narrow doorway into what felt like a small cave, clammy with cold and holding a variety of odd (though for a change not unpleasant) smells.
I was completely blind, and stood still while at least two people moved around me, closing doors and what sounded like window shutters, rustling gently (their feet, I suddenly realised, had always been nearly noiseless) until the man behind me spoke a brief guttural phrase in a language I did not know, and in front of me a match scraped and flared, outlining a shape as broad as a monolith. The bright match dimmed, and when he stood upright to shake it out the light that remained was gentle and warm, like a candle—or, I saw as he turned towards us, a small oil-fed wick burning from a pinched clay bowl.
I spared no attention for the light source, however; my eyes were on the two men as they moved across to a corner of the room, shrugged their outer garments on a rough table, and turned to face us.
I was prepared, of course, for the two men to be Arabs, given their names, clothing, and the Moslem greeting back on the beach, but when I saw the reality of my companions in this tiny space it was a good thing I had Holmes with me, because I might otherwise have bolted for freedom: we had been dropped into the hands of a pair of Arab cutthroats. Their dark eyes and swarthy faces were nearly hidden between their beards and the loose headcloths they wore. The younger man was dressed as a dandy, if one can picture an Oriental dandy with curling moustaches, long bead-tipped plaits around his face, kohl encircling his eyes, and smelling of flowery scent, with an ornate curved scabbard stuck through the left side of his belt and a pearl-handled revolver on the right. A heavy gold watch on his wrist showed the wrong time but echoed the gold thread of the thick cords that held his headcloth in place, and the crimson colour of his boots matched the red in the flamboyant embroidery that ran up the front of his long waistcoat. The other man was older and more conservatively dressed—or rather, the colours of his garments were quieter, the embroidery more subtle. He wore the usual long-skirted Arab robe, although he too had both knife and gun (a long-barrelled Colt revolver). His face was bisected by a scar that tugged at his left eye and continued down into his beard; the younger man was missing two of his front teeth, which when he spoke revealed a slight and oddly sinister lisp.
I had lost a cousin two years before in the town north of here, cut down along with one of his children when the Arab inhabitants had risen against their Jewish neighbours, massacred a number of them, and driven the remainder from their homes. I did not want to be in the same room with these menacing individuals, much less dependent on them for food, drink, and instruction for the next six weeks.
Holmes seemed quite oblivious. He studied his surroundings as he unbuttoned his damp woollen jacket, peeling it off stiffly along with his haversack and dropping them both onto the rough bench that slumped against one wall. He turned to the men. “I do hope you are satisfied,” he said in a low drawl. “I imagine we shall have sufficient demands on our energies in the next few days without your continuing with these little games.” The two Arabs did not react, although their gazes seemed to sharpen somewhat. “Which of you is Ali Hazr?”
The younger, more colourful man tipped his head briefly to one side. “And you are Mahmoud Hazr?” Holmes asked the other. The stocky older man with the scar lowered his eyelids briefly in confirmation. “I am Sherlock Holmes, this is Mary Russell. Gentlemen, we are at your service.”
His generous offer did not seem overly to impress the two Arabs. The brothers looked at each other for a moment of wordless communication, then Ali turned his back on us and went to the back corner of the tiny room, where he dropped to his heels and began to assemble a handful of twigs and sticks into a small fire. Holmes opened his mouth, and then I could see him make the decision to shut it: Mycroft had chosen these men, and we had to trust that they knew what they were about. They had worked hard enough to get us here undetected; they would not light a fire if it was not safe.
I glanced over at Mahmoud, and found his black eyes studying Holmes with a mingled look of amusement, approval, and speculation. When he felt my gaze, his face closed and his eyebrows went down, but as he turned away I decided that, Arab cutthroat or no, the man was not unaware of subtle undercurrents.
“What is wrong with you?” he asked Holmes. His English was clear, though heavily accented.
It was Holmes’ turn to assume a stony expression. “There is nothing the matter with me.”
Ali gave a brief bark of what must have been laughter. “Some movements pain you,” he said, “and you flinched when I pushed on your shoulder. Are you injured or just old?”
It was, I had to admit, a valid question under the circumstances. Evidently Holmes too decided that the men had a right to know with what they were being saddled.
“I was injured, two weeks ago. It is merely the remnants of sensitivity.”
Ali sighed deeply and returned to his fire, but the answer seemed to satisfy Mahmoud. He walked over to the makeshift table leaning against the wall and bent to a heap of bundles that lay beneath it, coming up with a fringed leather pouch about the size of two fists. This he shook once, to attract Ali’s attention. The younger man looked up, and the two shared another brief wordless conversation before Ali shrugged and reached around the fire for an object like a giant’s spoon, a shallow pan with a long handle, which he placed on top of the burning sticks before standing and moving away from the fire corner. Mahmoud took his brother’s place at the fire, dropping to his heels and pulling open the drawstring of the leather pouch. He plunged his hand in, came up with a handful of pale grey-green beans, thumbed a few of them back into the bag, and then poured the rest into the skillet. It appeared that we had earned the right to a cup of coffee.
Holmes had already warned me that in Arab countries, coffee-making was a long, drawn-out affair. We sat in silence watching Mahmoud’s utterly unhurried motions, swirling the beans across the pan. The small green dots changed colour, grew dark, and finally began to sweat their fragrant oil. When they were shiny and slick and nearly burnt, Mahmoud picked up a large wooden mortar and with a flick of the wrist tipped the contents of the coffee skillet into it, spilling not a single bean. He set aside the skillet and took up a pestle, and began to pound the beans. At first the coffee crackled crisply under the pestle and tumbled back into the bottom of the mortar, but gradually the sound grew soft, and a rhythm grew up, the pounding alternating every few strokes with a swipe at the sides, where the coffee clung. The resulting sound was like a cross between a drum and a bell, quite musical and curiously soothing.
Eventually the coffee was reduced to a powder, and Mahmoud set the mortar and pestle to one side and reached for the incongruously homely English saucepan of steaming water that Ali had set to boil, filled from a skin hanging off the rafters. Picking up the tallest of three long, thin brass coffee-pots, he poured the ground coffee into it, followed by the steaming water. After a minute he skimmed off the foam and allowed the coffee to subside, then poured the mixture into a smaller pot with the same shape. He added a pinch of spice, stirred and skimmed it again, and finally poured the tar-like coffee into four tiny porcelain cups without handles that nested in the palm of his hand. It was unlike any Turkish coffee I had ever tasted, fragrant with cardamom and thick enough to spoon from the cup.
After the ceremonial three cups, we ate, tearing pieces of a flat bread, cold and tasting of raw flour despite being flecked with burnt bits, using the pieces to scoop, spoon-like, into a communal pot of some sort of spiced and mashed pulse or bean, also cold. It was a makeshift meal, but it served to fill our stomachs, and its completion seemed to mark a degree of acceptance on the part of our hosts. They wiped their fingers on their robes, cleared the cups and empty bowl to one side, and proceeded to pull out a couple of beautifully embroidered tobacco pouches and roll themselves cigarettes. Holmes accepted Mahmoud’s offer of the pouch, papers, and a glass of cold water; they were not offered to me, but I declined as if they had been, and waited impatiently for the male tobacco ritual to reach a point where speech was acceptable. Eventually, the silent Mahmoud looked at Ali, who seemed to feel the glance and take it as a signal because he immediately reached into the front of his robe with his left hand and took out a thumb-sized knob of soft wood. His right hand went to his chest and drew the heavy, razor-honed knife from its decorated scabbard, and to my surprise he proceeded to use the unlikely blade to whittle delicately at the bit of wood. After a few moments, his cigarette bobbing dangerously close to his black beard, he paused in his carving and raised his eyes to Holmes.
“So,” he said. “Do you mind telling us what you are doing here?”