Page Created 7-18-02

copyright © R. Lionel Fanthorpe

Huge and inescapable, it rose from the Pit.
THE sun beat mercilessly down on the white walls of the desert city. It was half as old as time. The walled city, in the heart of the trackless wastes of the Arabian desert, clustered around an oasis in the way that white maggots cluster around a piece of decaying flesh. The walled city of the oasis had a smell; smell is perhaps too soft and euphemistic a modern term. In the good old English of our forefathers, the city stank. It had a stench that went up to the gates of heaven like an offence against all laws of nature and human decency.
        The city shimmered in the desert sunlight and, as though in contrast to the white heat of its wall, a thousand colours on robes and burnouses lifted their hues to the azure dome above, as the inhabitants of the oasis city moved to and from their homes and their places of business.
        A few tourists from the west had reached it, and a few travelers from the east had occasionally passed, but by and large the great affairs of the east and west had had few repercussions upon this white, man-made scar that rose above the brown skin of the sandy desert.
        The city sent up more than a noisome smell. There was the odour of human misery in the air. Since time immemorial this walled city had been the home of the slave trader, and scores of leprous dealers in the hideous trade in human flesh which is known as slavery. The central government was doing its best to be progressive in a progressive world, but there are some places which resist social progress with the obstinacy which is characteristic of a granite boulder resisting the inroads of a mighty ocean. The waves of social progress were beating over the town; they had not yet completely submerged or dislodged the ancient customs of the oasis city.
        As far as the robed merchants were concerned, life was cheap, and the life of a slave was cheapest of it. Gold was a kind of god and those who possessed it could expect to be feared and venerated because of the power which it could buy them.
        The city was ruled by a tall, thin, wiry, hook-nosed Arab chieftain who rejoiced in the name of El Beyzak. He was perhaps no better or no worse than any other vicious eastern potentate of comparable background. But by any civilized standards, or by any humanitarian standards, El Beyzak was a monster, not a man. He boasted one of the largest harems in the desert, and his turnover rate was phenomenally high. It was rumoured by those who dare to speak of such things----and they were few enough----that there were dungeons below the palace in which El Beyzak amused himself in ways which made the strongest heart quail as it heard the screams of the dying victims.
        But the oasis city was wealthy by virtue of the caravan routes, by virtue, too, of the fact that there was a certain amount of influence that El Beyzak had with a neighbouring sheik, upon whose territory there happened to be oil. In exchange for peaceful co-existence El Beyzak obtained a very generous cut of the oil revenues.
        He was looking from the window of his palace as a heat-drenched caravan staggered in from the eastern gate. El Beyzak's hawk-like eyes could recognise a caravan with the ease and accuracy with which an experienced old sea captain's eyes could recognise an enemy flag on a cruiser in time of war.
        This caravan was not an enemy, it was, in fact, an event to which El Beyzak looked forward with dark, passionate delight. This was the slave caravan. The chieftain wrapped his robes tightly around his scrawny frame and strode on long, bony legs through the cool courts of the palace into the reek of the market place.
        The slaves, nearly all females, were being lifted down from the caravan and chained unceremoniously in low, dark ante-rooms from which they would ultimately be taken to the auction block. The camels were taken out to be rested, watered and fed. El Beyzak approached his friend, Abdul, the slave trader. Abdul bowed low before the parrot-faced chieftain of the desert city.
        "I trust that my lord will be pleased with the merchandise that I have brought him."
        "Have you anything unusual?" asked El Beyzak.
        "Oh, great master of the desert," murmured Abdul, "I have brought you this time a rare jewel who shall grace the walls of your palace, who will shine like a star amid the finery and splendour of your abode."
        "You speak well. I trust that this jewel of perfection comes up to your description," said El Beyzak, "for I am not a man that takes kindly to disappointments or anticlimax."
        "No words could do justice to this rare treasure that I am bringing you," promised Abdul.
        "Of what nationality is this pearl beyond price?" asked El Beyzak with increasing interest.
        "Of the rarest. It is a European."
        "European," said El Beyzak. He arched his eyebrows, "It is a long time since we had one of those." He paused, "How did you come by so dangerous and rare a specimen?"
        "A long and complicated story, my lord."
        "What age is this rare treasure?" asked El Beyzak.
        "Seventeen, perhaps eighteen, not more."
        "It sounds most charming." El Beyzak's eyes glittered and flashed like two pools of deep, dark, dangerous evil. "But I must know more of its history. Such things can be politically dangerous. For some obscure reason the so-called western democracies have an unaccountable habit of going to war, or at least going to great lengths, to protect their citizens. Is it French, German, Spanish?"
        "I lack your wisdom in the world of politics," said Abdul. "But it speaks only English, and I would therefore assume that it was either English or American."
        "Mmmm, so much the better," said El Beyzak, "But it cannot be traced to you, can it? I would not like to become involved in complications with the British Government, and as for becoming involved in complications with the American Government." He sighed and spread his hands. "It might be then necessary to return the jewel."
        "I assure you that there has been much discretion. It was taken from a Riviera beach by night."
        "Was it indeed?" said El Beyzak.
        "And none knew of its going, for it bathed alone when my men saw it."
        "Better and better," said El Beyzak. "Let us go and view this jewel." He moved towards one of the anterooms.
        "Not there, oh exalted one; it is by itself."
        "Indeed," said El Beyzak.
        Abdul the slave trader opened a door and El Beyzak's hawk-like eyes cut through the gloom like twin searchlights. His gaze came to rest on a girl, a girl with long, black hair, a beautiful but, at the moment, frightened, face, full, sensuous, red lips, and an exciting, provocative figure.
        El Beyzak wiped his mouth with the back of a scrawny hand. The girl looked at him, blinking in the gloom. She tried to back away, but the chains prevented very much movement.
        "Did I exaggerate, oh great one?" Abdul rubbed his hands together.
        El Beyzak moved across the room and touched the girl's cheek, tilting her head back so he could examine her more closely.
        "You did not exaggerate, Abdul, my worthy one," he said. "This is indeed a rare treasure that you have brought me. I will see that you are suitably rewarded. And, provided that such absolute discretion can again be assured, the price will be as great again."
        "I am, indeed, fortunate to be in the service of so great and worthy a master," said Abdul.
        "As I have already remarked," said El Beyzak, "you speak well, my good Abdul. Continue so to speak well and to act well and your reward shall be great, here in the city of El Beyzak the Magnificent."
        El Beyzak stroked the captive girl's cheek for a moment, and she cowered and shrank back. Like a horse dealer examining a steed, the Arab chieftain poked a long, bony finger into the girl's mouth; she recoiled with a little retching cough and then bit the finger, hard. El Beyzak gave a cry of pain and withdrew it. His eyes narrowed into two slits, full of hatred and cruelty.
        "I am told you understand English," he said.
        She opened her eyes in surprise and nodded.
        "It may surprise you to know that I myself was educated in England at one time," said El Beyzak. "I speak the language as well, perhaps even better, than you do yourself, for I had the opportunity of absorbing it at one of those famous institutions which are known as the Public School. My father, a previous chieftain of this city, was very pro-British in the old days. I am only for myself, as you will very soon learn. El Beyzak does not permit anyone to injure him. Not any one. Least of all does he permit himself to be injured by those who belong to him. In a little while you will be taken to the dungeons below my palace, and there you will be taught obedience. Whether the lesson is long or short will depend upon your response to your tuition. But of this I can assure you, you will be repaid at least a hundredfold for the pain which you have just dared to inflict upon me, and when next we meet I have little doubt that you will be in a very different frame of mind."
        There had appeared behind El Beyzak, as though by magic, two gigantic Nubian slaves. Each weighed in the region of seventeen or eighteen stones, and the dim light was reflected by oiled black skin that shone like polished ebony.
        "She has displeased me," said El Beyzak.
        The eyes of the giant Nubians lit up as though with the anticipation of some unholy pleasure.
        The black-haired English girl shrank back into the chains as she saw them advancing towards her.
        "Take her to the place of correction," said El Beyzak, nodding his approval as his huge Nubian guards unfastened the chains and dragged the screaming girl away in the direction of the unspeakable palace dungeons.
        "Don't forget," called El Beyzak, as she was dragged past him, "when next we meet I do not think you will be quite so ready to disobey me again." He smiled. It was not so much a smile as a curling of the lips. It was the kind of grimace that could have been emulated by a rattlesnake or a ferret. It was the kind of expression which had no right on a set of human features.

*          *        *

        Mac, the wizened and irascible old Scots editor of the "Daily Globe" pressed a button on his desk and waited, snorting with impatience and indignation, until the gargantuan form of Val Stearman appeared in the doorway.
        "And where ha' you been?" demanded Mac.
        "Combing my long golden hair in front of the mirror! Where the hell do you think I've been?" said Stearman. He flung a sheaf of copy on the desk. "If that's what you're damn well waiting for, Mac, you can stuff it right where the monkey stuffs its nuts."
        "Now, listen to me, Stearman," said Mac, and his eyes blazed fire. "You may be just about the best reporter who ever walked down Fleet Street. You may also be the best reporter on the 'Daily Globe'. But you are not irreplaceable. You are not a kind of journalistic god. Only an editor is a journalistic god. I am an editor. Great as you may be in your own particular sphere, I would assure you that it . . ."
        "All right, all right," interrupted Val. "I have not interrupted my afternoon session to hear one of your interminable sermons on the propriety and ethics of Fleet Street. If you've got anything to say, say it. I've got a headache; I'm fed up; I'm hot; I'm thirsty. I want to go home and put my feet up. I've been pounding out this blasted column for the sake of our five or six million readers, and do I get gratitude? Do I get thanks? Do I want gratitude or thanks?" he asked, rhetorically. "No!" he answered his own question. "I do not want gratitude or thanks."
        He leaned over the desk until his colossal bulk overshadowed the wizened editor.
        Mac glared up at him like a mongoose looks up at a boa-constrictor and wonders whether it is capable of tackling the monster.
        "But I do want civility," said Stearman.
        Mac leapt to his feet and drew himself up to his full height. His full height was about eighteen inches less than Stearman's. He found himself looking directly at Val's second shirt-button, which, incidentally, was unfastened and behind which a thick mat of grey-black hair bristled defiance almost in Mac's eye. "Stearman, I've been tempted to fire you so often, and you've raised my blood pressure so often, that I think at last it's time for a showdown."
        "You know that I could go to any one of fifteen papers tomorrow and they would hold two hands for me," said Stearman. "And you know that if I went, I could take half a million readers with me."
        "All right, all right," said Mac, and fished in his drawer for a wafer of chewing gum. Deliberately not offering any to Stearman, he bit on it hard, and looked out of the window. At last the little Scot got himself under control again. Val felt rather sorry for him, for an editor's life is not a happy one, and it is devilishly exacting.
        "Now," said Mac. He grinned suddenly and offered Stearman a wad of chewing gum. Val took it, grinned broadly and began to chew.
        "I hate apologising," said Mac, "but I'm sorry, Val."
        "So am I," said Stearman.
        "I think it's the weather," said the Scot.
        "Yeah, let's blame the weather," said Stearman.
        "There's one thing about blaming the weather,"' continued Mac, "it canna answer back."
        "Very sage," observed Val. "Now that you've wasted precious time, having one of your blood pressure tantrums, would you like to tell me what's it all about?"
        He grinned wickedly. "I assume you were not ringing for this lump of overdue copy which I have just bunged on to your desk."
        "No, I was concerned about that, but that wasna' the reason. I wanted to see you. There was another hour to finish that. We're holding that space for you."
        "Well, thanks very much," said Val.
        As he spoke Mac, who had that rare faculty of doing two things at once, was reading through the copy that Stearman had laid on his desk.
        "It's good stuff, Val; it's good stuff," he remarked. "Just sit down, I want to put a proposition to you."
        "They've made me joint editor," said Val. "This is what I've been waiting for all my life."
        "No, nothing as rash as that," said Mac. "Val, I've got a personal problem."
        "Personal!" said Stearman. "Didn't think you had feelings, Mac."
        "Oh, I know what you and the rest of the lads feel about me," said the old Scots editor. "But, believe me, I do have feelings, particularly about family loyalty. In fact, I suppose, in a way, you could say that I'm clannish, almost to a fault. I have a number of grand-daughters, fine, bonnie lasses, all of them. A wee bit wild, a bit venturesome, maybe. There's nothing bad in any of them, they're good girls."
        "So?" said Stearman.
        "How would you feel if your grand-daughter had been kidnapped?"
        "Amazed," replied Stearman. "I don't have a granddaughter."
        "Will you be serious?" said Mac.
        "O.K., old boy, I'll be serious," murmured Val.
        Mac drew a deep breath. "She was on holiday, with two or three other girls. She was in a dancing troupe, and they were doing a tour of the Mediterranean."
        "It's pretty dicey, isn't it?" said Stearman.
        "Well, it was a thoroughly bona-fide company," remarked Mac. "I vetted it very thoroughly before I let her go, but," he shrugged small, wizened shoulders, "Flora's like the rest of the young people these days. Headstrong, independent."
        "How old is she?" asked Stearman.
        "Seventeen years old," said the editor.
        "My God," said Val. "That's pretty young to go traipsing off around the Mediterranean."
        "Well, some of the other girls were younger. They were well cared for. There was even a chaperone. It's a good company, it wasna' one of these things you read about in sensational papers."
        "Like the 'Globe'," Val's eyes were twinkling as he said that.
        "But for all that, she slipped out of her hotel room, the manager told me when he phoned a little while ago, and went for a midnight swim."
        "In the Med?" said Stearman.
        "Aye, a midnight swim off the North African coast."
        "Blimey!" exclaimed Stearman. "What was she like to look at? I mean, was she the kind of girl who might . . ."
        "Aye," said Mac. "She is the kind of girl who might be kidnapped, for, what we might call, obvious reasons."
        Stearman closed his eyes momentarily, as though to shut out some hideous vision.
        "I've got a photograph of her here," said Mac.
        He fished it out of his desk drawer. It was a 6 x 4 plate, taken by a professional studio. Written across it, in a strong, round, gay, feminine hand was the legend: "To Grandad, with love from Flora."
        "Taken about three months ago, when she got her first professional engagement as a dancer," said Mac.
        Stearman studied the picture of the girl with the long, dark hair, the bewitchingly beautiful face, and the full, rather sensuous lips. He sighed.
        "By God, she'd fetch a price, you-know-where," he said to Mac.
        "Aye, that's what I'm frightened of," said Mac.
        "Have you notified Interpol?" asked Stearman,
        "Of course. They're working on it."
        "Well?" said Stearman.
        "We just blasted off at each other, as is our wont," said Mac. "Now, Val, I want to be deadly serious. I want to have a moment of truth with you."
        "All right," said Stearman. "We'll be serious."
        "We've worked together a long time," went on Mac, "but I think we're closer than workmates."
        "That's true," said Stearman, "I'll be serious, Mac. I wouldn't put up with the things you say from anybody else."
        "No, and I wouldna' put up with your conduct from anybody else, either," said Mac.
        "Right, now, we've got that settled," said Stearman.
        "Well, so much for the sugar coating, now for the pill underneath," said Mac.
        "Let's forestall it," said Val. "You want me to go out there to find her, undercover, privately."
        "Look, this isn't idle flattery," said the editor, "but you're the only man I know who'd have even the slimmest chance of bringing Flora back alive."
        "Your confidence in me is most touching," said Val. "On the other hand, you know as well as I do just how slim our chances are."
        "I reckon it's about three hundred to one against."
        "You don't think Interpol will be able to do anything, then?" asked Val.
        "They'll do their best, and they are a damned fine organisation," said the editor. He shrugged his wizened, weary shoulders. "But what chance have they got? A girl disappears on a moonlit beach, she's not missed for four or five hours."
        "Yes, I see what you mean," said Stearman. "It's going to cost money."
        "You can have every penny of mine and you can help yourself from the 'Globe's' general expense account."
        "You know I wasn't charging you in that sense. I was talking about the bribes that will have to be paid out to dirty little informers in North African cafés; waterfront rats and things of that nature," said Stearman.
        "You can draw what you like, and I mean that," said Mac. "But I want that girl back, alive and sane."
        "We'll do what we can," said Stearman.
        "We?" said Mac.
        "Well, you don't think I'm going traipsing off to North Africa without my La Noire, do you?" said Stearman.
        "You can't take your wife out there, Stearman," gasped Mac. "It's dangerous, man, it's dangerous. I'm envisaging sending you perhaps into the heart of the Arabian Desert."
        "We go together, or we don't go," said Stearman. "Now you know that as well as I do, Mac."
        Mac shrugged.
        "Be it on your own head," he said.
        Stearman nodded.
        "When do you want me to leave?"
        "Tonight. This minute, if you can," said Mac.
        "All right," said Val. He grinned impishly. "What about my column then?"
        "I'll write your blasted column," said Mac.
        "You!" said Stearman, as though the thought was completely beyond his understanding.
        "Aye, and don't think I canna' do it," said the Scot.
        "Where are you going to get the information from?" said Stearman. "All that specialised occult knowledge of mine?"
        "I'm going to take some of the ten-year-old articles you once wrote and re-hash them," said Mac.
        "Do you think the great reading public will put up with that?" said Val.
        "When my grand-daughter's life is in danger," said Mac, "I believe that the great reading public will be generous enough to understand, and if they knew the facts I dare say they would be able to make the great sacrifice of going without your column altogether!"
        Val grinned.
        Mac handed him a wad of papers.
        "All the information you need is here," he said.
        "Well, you old rogue," said Val, "you'd got this ready before I said I would go."
        "I haven't worked with you all this time without knowing the kind of man you are," said Mac, "Still, you could no more turn down a job like this than you could change the colour of your eyeballs."
        Val picked up the file that Mac had prepared and left the office at a run. . . .

*          *        *

        He reached home to find that La Noire had already packed.
        "How the blazes?" he began,
        "Mac phoned the minute you left the office," said La Noire.
        "I might have suspected it," said Stearman.
        "He's also made the reservations," said La Noire.
        "Ah, the old war horse can really move when it tries," agreed Val.
        "We are not taking the car then?" asked La Noire rhetorically.
        "I don't think so. It will only mean leaving it in someone's lock-up near the airport. I'd rather we left it here."
        La Noire glanced at her watch.
        "I'll call a cab then," she said.
        "It will just give me time for a quick cup of coffee," said Val.
        He went through to the kitchen while La Noire picked up the telephone and dialed the nearest hire car firm. By the time Val reappeared through the kitchen with two cups of coffee, the flat bell was ringing. A smartly uniformed driver saluted as La Noire opened the door.
        "Your cab to the airport, Madam."
        "Just drinking our coffee," said Stearman. "Come on in, old man, I'll pour you one."
        "That's very kind of you, sir. Thank you, sir." The driver came in and Stearman produced another cup. La Noire looked at her watch again.
        "We shall have to leave the washing-up till we get back," she said.
        "If we get back," said Val. "I don't know how much Mac told you."
        "Well, he said you'd agreed to do something for him in North Africa, and would I please pack because it was urgent."
        "Well, just how urgent and just how serious I'll tell you on the way to the airport," said Val.
        The driver was too impeccably well trained to have flashed them so much as a questioning look. But it amused Val Stearman to ponder what might well be going through the professional jehu's mind.
        They locked the flat and hurried down the steps. The cabman opened the door and Val followed La Noire into the smartly upholstered interior. It was a new cab, very comfortable and luxurious to ride in. They sat back and relaxed.
        The cab reached the airport, dipped under the long tunnel and emerged at the far end. Val and La Noire went through the emplaning formalities of the customs with practised ease, for they were seasoned and veteran travellers.
        The graceful smooth take-off of the gigantic jet airliner was an accolade to modern technology. Val filled in the rest of the details of the mission which he was undertaking ---- which they were undertaking on behalf of Mac, the irascible old Scots editor of the "Daily Globe".
        They touched down in Cairo after a swift and uneventful flight. Cairo was as Stearman remembered it. It was the same old Cairo which he had known towards the end of the North African campaign. True, there were many apparent differences, but underneath the mysterious heart of Egypt continued to beat. Only the blindest optimist would have pretended that the Nasser regime was a blameless socio-political edifice.
        Stearman was no such creature. On the other hand, comparing the Cairo he had known and the Egyptians, the ordinary Egyptian workers, whom he had known in the immediate post-war era, with this teeming hive of middle eastern industry which now spread out around him, Stearman realised that since the departure of the "monarchy" and several things that were associated with it, the lot of the average Egyptian had improved beyond recognition. But, despite this and despite the new buildings which he had already noticed, Val got the same old feeling which he always got in Cairo. There were things about Egypt which neither the Aswan Dam nor the nationalisation of the Suez Canal would ever be able to change. There was a quality which can come only to a country that is aware of five thousand years of civilised history.
        From the thousand and one antique shops of Cairo, small figures of exquisite workmanship and enormous age bore mute but triumphant testimony to the antiquity of Egyptian civilisation. Stearman always shuddered a little, internally if not visibly, at the sight of some of the Egyptian gods. They were awe-inspiring creatures. A shop near the airport had a window full of small antique figurines and reproductions of some of the classic pantheon.
        Stearman looked at them and, as he looked, his eyes came to rest on a figure which he knew only too well was the Egyptian god of evil----Set. It seemed to look back at him unflinchingly, challengingly, with a cynical, superior expression. For a moment Stearman felt an irrational impulse to take hold of the tiny figure, snatch it from the window, hurl it to the street and stamp it to powder beneath his heels. He controlled the impulse.
        The cab rank at Cairo airport was just beyond that shop. They hailed a cab and a handsome Egyptian driver wearing a jaunty red fez and a rather splendid black moustache drove them to their hotel.
        Val consulted the file which Mac had given him. The file contained a number of addresses. Mac had contacts in M.I.5, some official, some unofficial. He also had contacts with people who were well known to Interpol, people who sat on both sides of the fence.
        Val looked through the addresses carefully, very carefully. He had been looking at them on the plane; some were more familiar than others. There was one that had stood out like the big toe of the mummified remains of Tutankhamun. Val looked at that address again and memories came flooding back into his mind. They stayed only long enough to eat a meal, which came up promptly and efficiently via the room service system, and then Stearman and La Noire called another cab and gave the driver the name of the street, for Stearman would not have revealed that exact address specifically to anyone.
        It was a long street in an old run-down quarter that had not yet benefited from the clearance operations of the post-revolutionary building boom. Val and La Noire passed between the beaded curtain fringes into the cool, perfumed interior of the café. A dusky belly dancer was performing her timeless, seductive art beneath the bright yellow light of a spotlamp, which had all the appearances of a piece of ex-government equipment. Stearman wondered by what devious route it could possibly have arrived in the café.
        His eyes followed the dancer's movements and contours appreciatively. Her costume jewellery was very artistically arranged and just for a few moments Val's attention wandered from the urgency of the business in hand! It was a gentle nudge from La Noire which brought him back to the immediacy of the task which now confronted him. The gargantuan journalist and his exotic companion moved quietly and unobtrusively between the tables.
        At the far end of the café was a door. Nothing was written upon it and yet something about its red-painted exterior seemed to present a forbidding restrictionary appearance to those who were unfamiliar with it. Stearman remembered the chipped red paint of that door, although it had been over twenty years since he last stepped through it.
        As he felt the handle, solid but old beneath his fingers, all kinds of memories came back. Memories of war-time Egypt. Memories of men who had fought with him in North Africa. Memories of men who now slept beneath those strange desert sands and who, because of their sleeping, had made a few patches of the desert eternally English.
        Nobody seemed to look up, nobody seemed to turn by the tiniest fraction as Val and La Noire moved through that old red door, and yet Val knew the ways of this place so well that he was convinced of the fact that any stranger who had attempted to pass through that door would have been immediately and automatically accompanied by at least three of the most ruthless knife artists in Cairo.
        Beyond the door was a flight of steps. Val preceded La Noire down to the basement. From the basement passages ran off in all directions. It was a veritable warren, a labyrinth of tunnels. Behind a desk, wearing a green eyeshade and looking for all the world like a mid-western editor in one of those second feature films where the editor is campaigning against gun-slingers and cattlebarons, sat a tall, thin, grey-haired Egyptian. He looked up and whisked off the green eyeshade as Stearman entered.
        Just for a second there was a certain dimness, an absence of recognition, perhaps, in the eyes, and then they flashed to light as though they were illumined by arclamps.
        Stearman held out an enormous, muscular, bronzed, tanned hand. It wasn't very much lighter in colour than the olive hand which shook his, the olive hand which belonged to the man with the green eyeshade.
        "And how has the world treated you, Stearman, my friend? By the gods, you are older."
        Val nodded.
        "What you say is true," he said.
        The man fished in the drawer of his desk and produced a bottle.
        "For the lady?" he inquired.
        "Please," said La Noire.
        Glasses emerged from a drawer. The bottle chinked against the rim of the glasses. Stearman and La Noire finished the superb imported whisky and replaced the glasses on the desk.
        "You have not come only to drink my whisky," said the man behind the desk.
        "No, we haven't, my friend," said Val. "We have come to seek your help. I have an open cheque book."
        "This is interesting, but such things are of less importance than a certain service that you rendered me long ago."
        "Does your memory go back so far?" asked Val.
        "Memory is the greatest treasure a man has. The past is the only thing which can never be taken from us. Retain your grip of the past and you have a firm hold on happiness."
        "You speak very wisely," said Stearman.
        La Noire nodded sagely.
        "Live the eternal now, so that the past will be as full as possible with as many happy memories as you can pack into it," said the grey-haired Egyptian. "But we didn't come here to discuss philosophy, I am sure."
        "No," agreed Val, "interesting as your philosophy is, it was not for that that I came." He smiled. "Had I wished only your philosophy, we might have telephoned."
        "It is a delicate matter?" The Egyptian's remark was half question, half statement.
        "It is a matter of the utmost delicacy," said Stearman.
        He produced a photo of Flora.
        "A very beautiful girl," said the Egyptian. "Unfortunately, I have not seen her."
        "I didn't expect for one moment that you had," said Stearman. "But I need the support of your organisation if I am to find her, and I must find her quickly."
        "She has disappeared somewhere in North Africa, I expect," said the man with the green eyeshade.
        "She has," said Stearman.
        "It is not unusual," said the Egyptian.
        "True," agreed Stearman.
        "You believe that the traders have her?"
        "This seems the most likely thing," agreed Val.
        "Mmmm, the traders," said the man with the green eyeshade. "The traders," he repeated. "They are dangerous people."
        "I am also dangerous," said Stearman.
        "Yes, I agree, otherwise I would not consider putting you in touch with them, It would be like watching the spider fighting the desert wasp."
        "And which am I?" said Stearman.
        "The spider is an unwholesome creature; the wasp stings clean, sharp and deadly." The Cairo man paused. "You are not a spider, oh Stearman," said the Egyptian.
        "Thank you," said Val. "Tell me," he was fencing with words, duelling verbally with the wily Egyptian espionage agent. "Tell me," he repeated. "The duel between the spider and the wasp. Who wins?"
        The Egyptian shrugged, then he smiled.
        "In this case, my money is on the wasp," he said. "But have a care."
        Stearman nodded.
        "Thank you," he said.
        "There is such a man," said the Egyptian, speaking apparently to the corner of the room above Stearman's head. "There is such a man who is known to my organisation, who might have taken such a girl. She would have been taken on a considerable journey."
        "Such as?" said Val.
        "There is a walled oasis city. Such things are greatly to the discredit of my own people. Such places are blots on the escutcheon of the Middle East, but I digress; there is a walled city ruled by a certain El Beyzak. There are many such places, but there is something about the quality of this girl, whose picture you have shown me, that makes me feel that had she fallen into the hands of a man, Abdul the trader----again, there are many such people----it would have occurred to him at once to take her to the walled city, the oasis city."
        "The city of El Beyzak," said Stearman.
        "Precisely," said the Egyptian.
        "Why this man in particular?"
        The Egyptian looked past Stearman.
        "This man is not a man but a monster. He is on the list of my organisation. Ultimately it will be necessary for those we represent to eliminate him and replace him with a more liberal form of government. However, he is a careful man and he has strong protectors."
        Val nodded,
        "It will not be easy for you to approach this place."
        Val nodded again.
        "I was well aware of this when I undertook the work," he said.
        The Egyptian with the green eyeshade pressed a button on his desk. As though by magic a tall, desert-weathered Arab appeared. He looked as though he might have come straight from the pages of a Hollywood extravaganza.
        "Achmed, I would like you to meet my friend Val Stearman." He looked at La Noire. "The lady I have not met."
        "My wife," said Val.
        "Your taste is as impeccable as ever," smiled the nameless man with the green eyeshade.
        "Achmed," said the Egyptian espionage agent. "I would like you to convey our friends by the appropriate route to that ill-favoured spot on the coast, where the accursed sail of Abdul the trader can occasionally be seen."
        "Shall be done, oh great one," said Achmed, with a courteous bow.
        Val and La Noire followed the Arabian desert ranger along one of the winding labyrinthine tunnels. It came up in a part of Cairo which Stearman and La Noire had never seen before. Through a maze of narrow, winding streets, Val and La Noire followed the mysterious desert-clad Arabian. The journey ended at last at a house of singularly evil aspect with a tall white wall and trees in a courtyard.
        Their guide whispered a number of hasty words to the bloated Egyptian who came to the door of the wall. Then he returned to them.
        "This man would have been able to guide you to the rendezvous of Abdul the trader, but it will not now be necessary. For Abdul is even now expected at this house!"
        "It's about time the luck started going our way," said Stearman,
        "Oh, darling," said La Noire, "we've only been here five minutes, you can't expect things to happen as quickly as that."
        "I expect action immediately," said Val.
        La Noire smiled.
        "Patience," she said.
        "I suppose you're right," said Val. "I'm not a patient man by nature."
        The street seemed to grow darker as one of the most unpleasant looking men Stearman had ever seen appeared at the far end of it. It was not that there was anything about him that a man might describe as being evil. His features were not distorted, his eyes were not of any unusual colour, they didn't glare with an angry red, or glow with a baleful yellow-green. But there was an aura, an indefinable something about the man that left Val Stearman with a feeling that this creature was so indefinably horrible that he was sub-human. The man's soul was black, jet black; he was rancid with the presence of evil.
        Their guide, the desert ranger, stood in a shadowy corner of the courtyard. The fat Egyptian who had admitted them brought the slave trader across.
        "This man is interested in speaking with you, oh Abdul," said the fat one.
        "There is certain merchandise which I am most anxious to trace," said Stearman, coming straight to the point. "In fact, I have been authorized by my principal to give any sum you like to name for this merchandise."
        "Such a great offer must have come from a prince, or king," said Abdul. He was looking at Stearman carefully, trying to weigh him up, but Val remained in the shadows deliberately.
        "Have you any description of the merchandise you wish to trace?" persisted Abdul.
        "I have a picture," said Stearman.
        He showed Abdul Flora's photograph. Just for the tiniest fraction of a fleeting second did the slave trader betray any emotion. He recovered himself almost immediately but it was too late, the damage was done. Stearman had seen that slight stiffening of the body and he knew that the photograph had been significant.
        "I have not seen this merchandise," said the slave trader. He sighed and shrugged his shoulders. "I only wish that I had. For it is not often that one receives such offers as yours."
        "Think well," said Stearman.
        "I have a mind that forgets nothing, also I am a prudent and discreet man. I have not seen this merchandise."
        "Not even for twenty thousand English pounds in gold?" said Stearman.
        Again Abdul started as though the naming of such a figure had hit him in a sensitive spot. But once more the hesitancy was only so temporary that it would have been lost altogether on anyone less observant and less experienced than the big journalist adventurer.
        Stearman nodded almost imperceptibly to the desert ranger, who stood in the shadows, the tall Arabian who worked for the man in Cairo. He received an equally discreet gesture of the head in return and he knew, too, that La Noire had already sensed his intention. With a slow movement that did nothing to arouse the suspicion of Abdul the slave trader, Stearman half turned as though to make for the gate and then, as far as Abdul was concerned, everything seemed to happen at once. The big, iron-grey colossus exploded into a whirlwind of violent action and Abdul found himself face down in the dust. His legs were tied in an agonizing knot, in a position known to free-style wrestlers as the reversed figure-four. His arms were twisted high between his shoulder blades and pinned there by one enormous hand that secured both his wrists.
        "Tell me," said Stearman, very softly. "Tell me, if you value your life, why did you take that girl?"
        The Arab moaned a little to himself.
        "I'm afraid I don't understand that language," said Val. He increased the pressure just a little. The moan became a choked scream. Stearman raised a quizzical eyebrow in the direction of the Arab guide who had brought him and who was even now standing with a dagger in the fat Egyptian's back.
        "There is no danger," said the desert ranger. "Screams are ignored in this quarter."
        "How splendid," said Stearman.
        He heaved a little harder. Abdul the slave trader began to scream.
        "Come along," said Val. "You can save yourself and me a great deal of time. I've hardly started yet. Before I've finished with you, my boy, I'll tear your arms off and beat you over the head with them, but I will have the information."
        "I haven't seen the girl," sobbed the Arab.
        "Liar!" said Stearman contemptuously. Then he really began putting the pressure on, and the screams that rang round the courtyard for two or three minutes made the blood coagulate in the fat Egyptian's veins. He stood trembling like a bladder of lard in front of the knife, which the desert ranger held poised over his kidneys. Abdul finally decided that he was dealing with a man who would not take no for an answer.
        "She is in the oasis city," he gasped. "She has been sold to El Beyzak."
        Stearman was astounded at the accuracy of the prognostications which had been made by his friend with the green eyeshade.
        The big journalist produced a piece of strong cord from his pocket. He knotted it swiftly around the wrists he was holding, then he trussed Abdul's legs in the same manner.
        "Your leader told me that certain people might be interested in this carrion." He gave Abdul's recumbent figure a rolling prod with his foot.
        "Perhaps you would like to see that your leader's suggestions are carried out?"
        The desert ranger nodded.
        Before Stearman realised quite what he was going to do, the tall bronzed Arab thrust the knife which he carried straight into the back of the trembling Egyptian, in the courtyard of whose house they stood. The thrust was so swift, so sudden and so fatal, that there was not even the faintest cry before the murdered slave trader's contact man had collapsed. With a grin the desert ranger had withdrawn his knife and was advancing towards the trussed Abdul. Stearman made a half-effective gesture to restrain his ruthless colleague, but the knife disappeared up to the hilt into Abdul the slave trader's back. There was a horrible gurgle and the man's eyes closed eternally.
        La Noire had temporarily turned her face away, but now she looked back quite resolutely at the lifeless forms.
        "They must be disposed of," said the desert ranger quietly.
        "The well," suggested Stearman.
        "As good a place as any," said the Arabian. Val picked up Abdul's body, taking care to avoid the spot where the dagger had gone in. He swung it easily over the top of the well and released it. There was a slithering, bumping sound as it fell. The tall, thin, desert ranger half-rolled, half-dragged and occasionally pushed the body of the fat Egyptian towards the well of his own courtyard. There was a second slithering, bumping fall and a second thudding splash.
        "Nothing is lost," said the desert ranger coldly.
        "You know," said Stearman, "living in England for a long time, even living adventurously in England, makes a man tend to forget how cheap life can be in some other places."
        "Only some life is cheap," said the desert ranger. "Only life which has cheapened itself becomes cheap in the eyes of other men."
        Stearman nodded.
        "So now I take you to the city," said the Arabian desert ranger.
        It was a quicker journey than Stearman had thought. The man in Cairo, the man with the green eyeshade, seemed to have contacts everywhere. A vehicle materialised almost as though by magic. Val and La Noire and the desert ranger drove through a strange valley en route to the oasis city.
        "This valley," said the desert ranger, "is a very evil place."
        "Oh!" said Stearman.
        "It is said that there are caves in this valley that lead down to Sheol itself."
        "To Sheol?" said Stearman,
        "You have heard of the land of the dead; the world of shades, so it is said?" said the Arabian.
        La Noire shuddered.
        "I can feel the evil in this place," she whispered. "There is dreadful evil here."
        Val sniffed the cold night air of the valley.
        "I think you are right," he said.
        The jeep drove on. They reached the far side of the valley and drove through to the moonlit desert beyond.
        "Not far now to the oasis city," said their guide.
        He, like Stearman, was one of those powerful, tireless men who seem gifted by nature, or by destiny, with that strange ability to go for hours without any sleep, or rest, or water.
        They reached the walls and the gate of El Beyzak's city.
        "We will hide the jeep, I think. It may be necessary to make a rapid escape."
        Their guide drove a little way back from the wall and hid the jeep in the shade of a dune, in a shadowy black patch where no moonlight reached.
        "We will now obliterate the tracks," he said.
        Carefully he carried the weighted blanket, which he dragged over the sand behind them for that purpose, as they walked.
        They knocked at the gates, which were closed, and a sleepy-eyed wretch, carrying a long, old-fashioned gun, fumbled open a small wicket and stared at them with beady eyes. The Arabian ranger passed a gold piece through the picket, and the eyes lit up with greed as a small door opened. Val, La Noire and the Arabian moved through.
        The route to El Beyzak's palace was oiled by gold coins which passed from one guard to another. It would have been quite impossible for them to gain access even to the rural quarter of the city without those gold coins. They opened the doors as though they were magic keys.
        Stearman and La Noire followed their guide closely. Val was thinking just how well this Arabian desert ranger upheld the tradition of the Cairo espionage chief, the mystery man in the green eyeshade. They reached the edge of the palace itself and the Arabian walked slowly round it.
        "A frontal attack would be very foolish," he said. He looked at Stearman. "You and I are both warriors, but two warriors against two hundred warriors." He smiled cryptically.
        Val nodded.
        They continued circumnavigating the palace wall.
        "Behold," said the desert ranger, "at last. That's what we sought."
        "What is it?" said Val.
        "'Tis a water course," said the desert ranger.
        "A water course?" echoed Stearman,
        The Arabian nodded. Slowly he ducked his head and shoulders into the aperture and disappeared. Val and La Noire waited for what seemed an eternity. All the time they kept furtive watch up and down the moonlit street.
        At last the Arabian reappeared.
        "It will be a tight squeeze for you, but it will be just possible," he said.
        Stearman and La Noire crawled with him along the passage.

*          *        *

        Flora kept trying to tell herself that this was some insane nightmare and that at any moment she would wake and find herself dozing in her lodgings between shows. But, although she closed her eyes on numerous occasions, each time she opened them the nightmare persisted. It wasn't any good closing her eyes because the nightmare was in her ears as well. The nightmare was a noise as well as a sight.
        And so at last she opened her eyes to try to take a practical assessment of the situation. She was in a long, low dungeon; she was, in fact, chained to the wall of a long, low dungeon. There were three other girls, native girls, chained to the wall immediately ahead of her. There had been five, but already two had been taken to the far end of the dungeon out of her sight.
        She had not seen either of them come back, but she had seen some of the inhuman, masked brutes who walked that dungeon floor, and her imagination told her the rest. The screams she could still hear, the screams and the echoes of the screams. The two huge black Nubian guards who had brought her down to the torture dungeon came for one of the other girls. Flora watched as the coloured girl was unchained and dragged away. Beyond a black stone wall at the far end of the dungeon, she could hear indescribable sounds, and from time to time she caught the dull red reflection of something that glowed.
        Time passed, and the guards came back for the next girl.
        More time passed. She tried to tell herself that she had to wake up, that this couldn't be real, and then the guards came for her.
        She struggled desperately, trying to break away as they unfastened the chains, but she couldn't. They half-dragged and half-carried her down the long dark dungeon, past the black stone wall they dragged her, and there she saw a sight which looked as though it had come from the pages of some medieval horror manuscript. The most incredible instruments of torture were ranged all around the walls. Some of them she could recognise from the pages of history, but others she could only guess at, and the very unknown factor made it a thousand times more terrifying. The black guards dragged her to a pillar in the centre of this new space. Her hands were chained above her head and El Beyzak appeared.
        "I said that the next time we met I anticipated a change in your attitude," said the chieftain. He thrust his ugly, vicious face close to the chained girl. "Would you like to plead for mercy before it's too late?" he hissed.
        For answer Flora, whose terror would not permit her to give any kind of coherent speech, gathered the last of her energy, and spat full in that eastern, evil countenance.
        El Beyzak recoiled as though he had just received a violent electric shock.
        "Very well," he said. "You shall see what my men can do."
        He clapped his hands.
        "Begin," he ordered.
        The two Nubian giants advanced towards her. Flora prayed for a miracle. Prayed for the impossible, and in that tiny second the impossible happened.
        A parrot-faced Arabian desert ranger suddenly appeared through a drainage aperture beside the torture chamber.
        El Beyzak glared at the intruder, and gestured urgently and angrily to one of his guards. The guard drew a revolver from the holster of his belt and levelled it at the desert ranger. He never pulled the trigger. The desert ranger's knife flashed through the flickering red air and landed, with a horribly succulent sound, in the guard's throat. El Beyzak was still looking in horror at his dying guard when the enormous shoulders of Val Stearman appeared in the aperture. Stearman had a gun in his hand.
        For three seconds the scene in El Beyzak's torture chamber was like the climax of a pre-war gangster film, except that only one gun was doing the talking. Nobody else seemed to have a chance to draw. The element of surprise had been almost complete. The two giant Nubians were dead before their bodies hit the ground. El Beyzak took the third slug straight between the eyes. The desert ranger stabbed another guard and Stearman shot a third. After that there was only stillness in that dreadful place.
        "Come on," said Val. "There isn't a second to lose."
        Already feet could be heard pounding towards the underground chamber. La Noire and the desert ranger barred the doors while Stearman's massive muscles tore out the staples that held Flora's chains to the pillar.
        "This way," he said,
        The Arabian led them back along the winding water course. Once out of the palace it was a race for the jeep, but the gate-keeper was not disposed to open for them. The desert ranger's dagger struck just once more and they opened the gate for themselves.
        Rifles, old and, fortunately, not particularly accurate rifles opened fire from the wall and the tower tops behind them.
        They reached the jeep and set off across the desert as the moon went down behind a low rack of clouds, and a million stars shone out. Behind them more gates opened and horsemen began galloping wildly in the wake of the jeep.
        Arabian long guns were speaking short, sharp words of death in their direction. The others lay flat behind the protective metal sides of the jeep while Stearman crouched low over the wheel and drove as though he was pursued by a thousand furies. The thing lurched wildly as bullets struck the rear tyres, but tyres or no tyres, Stearman's steel wrists could keep the jeep on a reasonably even keel, even though the loss of pneumatics meant that their speed was considerably reduced.
        They reached the valley, the terrible valley through which they had previously driven. The valley, whose caves were reputed to lead into Sheol itself. A bullet struck the tank and a ricochet from the valley side put paid to the engine.
        Stearman, La Noire, Flora and the desert ranger climbed out.
        "It is the wish of my master in Cairo that should such a situation arise," said the desert ranger, "I shall stay to fight them off."
        "You're coming with us," said Stearman.
        The Arab shook his head.
        "I shall carry out the will of my master," he said.
        Then Stearman realised that such was the Easterner's fatalism, there was no point in arguing with him. He admired the man in Cairo for being able to inspire such tremendous loyalty and devotion in his men.
        The desert ranger had a revolver as well as his daggers.
        Stearman, La Noire and Flora, keeping to the sheltering wall of the rocky cliffs, continued to run. Bullets were singing all around them. Horsemen were falling as the Arabian fired accurately, making each bullet count. When the revolver was empty, he leapt from his place of concealment and sank his knife into the next horseman who rode past.
        Then they rode him down, and the temporary respite which he had been able to give to Stearman, La Noire and the fugitive girl was ended. Val pushed Flora and La Noire into the mouth of a cave, reloaded his big automatic and paused like a lion at bay. He was dropping the horsemen like pins at a bowling alley, but he was severely outnumbered and he knew that at any moment, as soon as the ammunition ran out, in fact, they would be overwhelmed. At least, he thought, he had the satisfaction of knowing that El Beyzak was dead, and that had been a project which the man from Cairo had wished to have accomplished.
        Stearman fired the last bullet and retreated into the cave. Suddenly from the floor of the valley a hideous thing rose up.
        It stood as high as a mountain; it wore peculiar robes and a hood. The head was a grinning skull; the eyes were two black sockets. Horses reared madly into the air. Riders were flung dishevelled in all directions. With screams of panic and wild oaths of terror, the guardsmen from the oasis city turned and spurred their mounts out of the valley. The thing took a step after them, down that dreadful valley of death.
        And then it seemed to melt away into nothingness as swiftly as it had come. Stearman, La Noire and Flora waited in the cave until morning. With the light of dawn, Val got to work on the crippled jeep. It took him three long hours, toiling in the hot sun, but at last he had effected a sufficiently adequate repair to limp them to the next oasis, and from there it was plain sailing back to civilisation.
        Why the thing from Sheol had appeared as and when it did neither Val nor La Noire had any idea at any subsequent time. The only thing that could explain the weird apparition, as far as Stearman's mind could travel, was the possibility that the departed shades of all who had died as a result of El Beyzak's cruelty had suddenly risen together in that hideous form to thwart the guards of that evil city.
        As an explanation, Val knew that it was inadequate, hopelessly inadequate, but it was all that he could think of and, in the world of the supernatural, all explanations, even the best, must of their very nature contain some degree of inadequacy.


Return to the Val Stearman & La Noire Archive