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Doctor Helios by Lewis Shiner

Cairo, September 1963

 

Through the window of the Boeing 707 he watched the Nile as it flowed toward the distant Mediterranean. It glinted silver in the noonday sun, then turned greenish-brown as the airliner banked over the pyramids at Giza and descended toward the brand-new Cairo International Airport northeast of the city.

 

“Mr. York?”

 

He turned to see the petite, auburn-haired BOAC stewardess reaching toward him. John York was the name on his entirely legitimate US passport, though he was still learning to respond to it.

 

“I shall have to take that coffee cup now,” she said. “We’ll be on the ground in a few minutes.”

 

“So soon?” he said, handing her the mug. “I hate to see our relationship end before it’s properly begun.” His smile transformed his face, and he knew that people would go some lengths to see it happen.

 

“First time in Cairo?” she asked. Melody, her name was.

 

“That’s right.”

 

“Well…” She put her index finger to her chin in a pantomime of serious thought. “I’ve been known to provide a brief orientation tour, in exchange for dinner.”

 

“Lovely. I’m at the Nile Hilton.” He glanced at his watch. Seven minutes past noon, Cairo time. “I could meet you in the lobby at, say, eight o’clock?” He’d flown overnight from Dulles to Heathrow, then immediately caught this direct flight. His body no longer had any idea what time it was, and he desperately needed a bath and a shave.

 

“Done.” She smiled and moved on to tourist class.

 

He turned back to the window, but the Nile, the longest river in the world, the life blood of Egypt, had disappeared.

 

#

 

The metal railing on the rolling stairs was too hot to touch, and the broiling air smelled of dust and garlic and, faintly, raw sewage. York trudged toward the gate, watching mirages form and disappear in the heat waves reflected off the tarmac, trying not to reveal how conscious he was of the briefcase in his left hand.

 

The ceiling fans inside the terminal stirred the languid air to no effect. The chaos of mingled voices had a distinctive lilt and throat-clearing rasp that reminded him on a visceral level that he was far from home.

 

A boy pushed his way through the crowd. He looked to be no older than fifteen and was dressed in a bright yellow shirt open at the throat and pin-striped trousers. He held up a square of corrugated cardboard with the word YORK in elaborate calligraphy, the K spouting serifs and a flourish.

 

“I’m York,” he said to the boy. “You speak English?”

 

“Passably,” the boy said. “I’m Zakkaria. I’ll be your driver. Let me take your bags.”

 

York hesitated. “Who sent you?”

 

“Don’t worry,” the boy said. “I work for Mr. Giles.” He produced a glassine envelope from his shirt pocket that contained an index card bearing the typed words, “This is my employee Zakkaria, in whom I am well pleased.” There was a passport-style photo of the boy, over which Giles had scrawled his signature.

 

The godlike tone was consistent with that of the dispatches York had been reviewing for the last two weeks. He handed over his garment bag, but kept the briefcase. Zakkaria led him through passport control and then to customs, where he beckoned York to the head of the line and called out something to the officer, who laughed and waved them both through.

 

York, who was not sure the false bottom of the briefcase could withstand rigorous inspection, was nearly done in by feelings of relief on top of two days’ worth of fatigue. He yawned and kept walking, through glass doors back into the sun-scorched afternoon.

 

Parked at the curb was a cream-colored 1960 Cadillac Series 62, complete with modest tail fins and four doors. It was a few years out of date and a bit scratched, but clean and polished to a dazzling shine. A boy of eight or nine in a galabiya squatted barefoot on the hood, holding ragged sandals in one hand. His brown face, brown peppercorn hair, and off-white robe were all coated in a layer of yellowish dust. Zakkaria tossed him a pair of coins and said, “Imshi!,” flicking his hand imperiously. The boy grinned and sprinted off, still barefoot.

 

Zakkaria slid the garment bag across the rear seat and then stepped back, holding the door. “Best to keep the luggage next to you, sir, if you’ve no objection.”

 

As they eased into traffic, Zakkaria tilted the rear view mirror until he made eye contact. “To Mr. Giles’ office, then, sir?”

 

“We need to make a stop first. I need a bank where I can rent a safe deposit box. Someplace reasonably large and anonymous.”

 

“There’s a Barclays branch near your hotel, sir.”

 

“Perfect.”

 

They passed a row of palm trees at the airport entrance and then they were in open desert. “There’s air conditioning, sir, if you wish it.”

 

“No, Zakkaria, thanks, I’m all right.” The air was dry, and once they built up speed, it was not unpleasant. The land was less flat than he’d imagined, the sand more of a reddish brown, the landscape more rocky. Periodically the road intersected wide, flat depressions that looked like dried river beds.

 

“I would have thought you’d drive on the left here,” York said. “What with the British and all.”

 

“Napoleon was here first, sir. So we stubbornly follow the French model.”

 

York studied the cars behind them on the two-lane blacktop. Zakkaria held to a steady ninety-five kilometers per hour, slow enough that one car after another shot past them as the opportunity presented itself. One car, however, a new red-and-white Buick sedan, matched their speed and kept exactly one other car between them.

 

Within five minutes the first signs of civilization appeared and the traffic slowed. York leaned forward and described the Buick to Zakkaria. “Once we get into the city, I want to make sure he is in fact following us. And if he is, we need to lose him.” With some reluctance, he added, “I can take over if you want.”

“Have you driven in Cairo before, sir?”

“No.”

“Best leave it to me, sir.”

Zakkaria turned off the highway, the Buick following at a distance. They passed a series of cheap apartment buildings, then made their way down badly paved streets lined with older homes in brick and stucco. It was not that different from neighborhoods York had seen in East Los Angeles, down to the palm trees and elaborate window gardens. The main difference was the mosques every few blocks, even the poorest of them decorated with onion domes and minarets that sprouted loudspeakers like metal mushrooms. The richest were spectacular palaces out of the Arabian Nights, ornate with tile and arches and bas-relief.

Within a kilometer the vegetation dried up entirely and York saw thick-walled houses built of mud brick and plaster, many of them two stories, with shops on the ground floor. The windows had wooden shutters in place of glass. The narrow streets of hard-packed clay elicited groans from the Cadillac’s suspension. Still, no matter where York looked, the minarets and domes of one mosque or another were always in view.

“Best roll up the windows now, sir,” Zakkaria said. York leaned across the seat to take care of the window on the front passenger side, then got the rear windows as the boy turned on the air conditioning. Dust had already lightly coated the upholstery.

There were more people on the streets now. The adults were all male, most of them in white galabiyas and turbans rather than Western clothes. Mongrel dogs threaded their way between them, skinny and rheumy-eyed. The other cars were older and missing vital parts, and donkeys and pushcarts shared the road. The smells were stronger too, despite the closed windows: rotting fruit and dung and dust.

The Buick had abandoned any pretense of innocence. It was only a few car lengths behind, and York could make out the man behind the wheel, an Arab in a fedora too small for his head, with another business-suited Arab next to him.

Zakkaria threw the car into a hard left and it skidded on loose gravel, then shook itself back on course. They barreled into an open square occupied by a souk. Two enormous sides of beef hung from a wooden frame, completely black with flies; mangoes, oranges, and peaches were stacked in pyramids; bolts of striped cloth covered tables next to cages of chickens. Men leaned out to shake their fists and curse as the Caddy roared by, then pelted the Buick in its wake with onions and tomatoes.

“Listen,” York said, “this is not worth killing somebody over.”

“Don’t worry, sir, we drive like this here all the time.”

Zakkaria took another sharp turn, throwing York back in his seat. They accelerated for two blocks, braked, slid, turned again.

“This isn’t working,” York said.

“Fear not, sir, I have a plan.”

Zakkaria took a hard right into an alley that appeared to be a dead end. A pushcart full of melons meandered down the left side of the road. York was not sure there was room to pass it.

“Ah,” Zakkaria said. “There he is.”

He slammed on the brakes and rolled down his window. The boy pushing the cart looked to be Zakkaria’s age. He wore a galabiya and a few loops of plastic ribbon around his neck, apparently as ornament. Zakkaria leaned out and shouted something as they passed. The boy raised one hand in acknowledgement.

The end of the alley was coming up fast. At the last second, Zakkaria braked and turned left into a kind of underpass, an enclosed space where the ground floor of the building should have been. York heard the front bumper of the Buick scrape the wall as it made the turn behind them.

Zakkaria circled the block, this time coming down the alley at higher speed. “You watch your friends now, sir,” he said.

York swiveled around as they passed the melon vendor and so was able to see the entire thing unfold: The boy was already starting to turn his pushcart as the Cadillac passed, then he sent it flying into the street in front of the Buick.

The driver of the Buick had no choice. He hit the cart at more than fifty kilometers per hour and the melons arced into the air like green and white balloons, paused at their apogee, then fell back to explode over the Buick, covering it in red, green, and orange pulp.

As York watched, the boy in the galabiya carefully stretched out in the road behind his shattered cart and began to writhe and scream in simulated pain.

As they entered the tunnel again, the alley had already begun to fill with outraged locals.

Zakkaria struggled to hold back laughter as he said, “I assure you, sir, they will not extricate themselves for many agonizing hours.”

“Who’s going to pay for that poor boy’s cart?”

“Not to worry, sir. He’s on the payroll. He will file an expense report.”

#

As they approached the center of the city, York had Zakkaria circle a few blocks to make sure there were no further tails. When he was satisfied, he had the boy drop him in front of Barclays with instructions to return in half an hour.

Standing in the street, York dusted off his sport coat and slacks, marveling that he was only a couple of miles from where they’d left the Buick. Other than the Arabic calligraphy on the signs and the relative absence of women, he could have been in any large European city. The shops were elegant, the cars new, the pedestrians dressed in jackets and ties, albeit with the occasional fez. As he stepped into the lobby he felt the welcome chill of conditioned air and heard the same carpeted hush he would have expected in London or Geneva. Men in expensive suits moved in and out of glass walled offices, making York feel shabby in comparison.

The stunning dark-eyed woman at the information desk addressed him in English and summoned one of the suited men to arrange his safe deposit box. With the paperwork complete, they inserted their keys together and York took his box and briefcase to a private viewing room. There he removed the false bottom of the briefcase and transferred 100,000 Egyptian pounds to the box. The notes, all slightly used and untraceable, were worth over $300,000 US.

 

Again the fatigue hit him hard, leaving him momentarily dizzy. He closed his eyes, let himself drift off for exactly one minute, then rang for the clerk.

 

#

 

Giles’ office was east of the city center, in a cluster of buildings from the 1930s and ‘40s. York climbed three flights of concrete stairs and found a pebbled glass door that read ATLANTIC IMPORT-EXPORT. Inside was a disused reception desk fronting three offices. Two appeared to be empty. The third, lit by harsh fluorescents, was occupied by a man in his sixties with brush-cut white hair. His long white shirtsleeves were rolled past the elbow, his tie loose, a cigarette burning in his nicotine-stained right hand while the other made its way down a typed list of numbers. A box fan sat in the open window and blew hot air across the surface of the desk, which contained an overflowing ashtray and various piles of papers held down with chunks of dark brown volcanic rock.

 

Giles stood up as York entered, still not looking away from the list. He parked the cigarette in the corner of his mouth and extended his hand. “York, I assume.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“We’re informal here. Call me Giles.” The hand waved toward a cracked leather armchair and recovered its cigarette. Giles sat down again, still reading. “Damn, damn, damn.” He circled one of the figures with a number two wooden pencil that bore his tooth marks and then finally looked up. “So. How do you like Cairo?”

 

“We were followed from the airport. Your boy Zakkaria lost them, but we incurred some expenses.”

 

Giles shrugged. “We have money. Even more now, thanks to you.”

 

“Speaking of which,” York said, “there’s a duplicate key to the safe deposit box—”

 

Giles held up his cigarette. “Don’t want to know about it. I assume the bank won’t let anyone else into it, so there’s no point.” He pushed his chair back from the desk. “I’ve got you set up for a lunch meeting tomorrow at the Gezira Sporting Club with the Under Assistant Secretary of Fly Swatting or some such. You’ll discreetly slip him a hundred pounds and he’ll hand you a letter that says you’re a beloved friend of Nasser’s government. They’ve got their own chartered airplane that runs between here and Aswan, and, among other things, that letter will get you a seat, and one for your translator.”

He plucked an 8 x 10 black and white photo from the middle of one of the piles. “You’ll meet him at lunch too. Older wallah, name of Mahmoud. Quite sound. He’s been fully briefed on your mission and he’ll be able to help you with the fine points.”

Giles’ accent was east coast US private school, but his slang was strictly British Colonial. York had seen the same affectation among the Americans stationed in India two years before.

The photo showed a lean-faced, light-skinned Arab with a turban and a gray mustache. The camera had caught him looking away, pensive, even a bit sad. York nodded and handed back the photo.

“There’s one other thing,” Giles said. “The chap you were supposed to meet in Aswan is not going to make the rendezvous. They found him early this morning at the foot of a cliff with his neck broken.”

#

Giles said, “Too early to know what it means, of course. I suppose it might even have been an accident.”

“No,” York said. His exhaustion delayed his recovery from the shock. He couldn’t stop picturing the shattered body.

 

“No, I suppose not. One of the security people might have found him hanging about where he wasn’t supposed to be and decided to handle it ex cathedra. But the most likely possibility is the worst, which is that somebody in his organization figured out he was working for us.”

 

“Even though we’re on their side.”

 

“It’s never that simple here. There are more sides than there are players on the pitch.”

 

“So we’re back to square one, with no contact.”

 

“Or worse. The entire mission may be blown.” Giles dropped his voice, making it hard to hear over the roaring fan. “Now look here, I was never keen on this mission in the first place. We might be destroying something we might do better to leave alone.”

 

York shook his head. “I don’t write my own orders. The mission goes ahead unless I hear otherwise from Washington.”

 

“If they’re onto us, it could put you in physical danger.”

 

“I’m not concerned about that.”

 

“You should be. I’m not sure I entirely trust a man with no sense of self preservation.”

 

“Tell me what you know about this organization.”

 

Giles sighed. “They call themselves Al-Mashiah Ra, the Cattle of Ra. Ra was supposedly the father of the Egyptian race. Their symbol looks like a sketch of a doughnut.” He reached across the desk to draw two concentric circles on a random piece of paper near York. “Some sort of hieroglyph representing the solar disk, I’m told.”

 

“What is it they want?”

 

“Nasser out, the Yanks and Ruskies out, a return to the good old days, which according to them would be somewhere around twelve or thirteen hundred BC.”

 

“Do we take them seriously?”

 

“The part about wanting the Ruskies out, anyway. Look, if you’re going to insist on going forward with this, I suppose you could pop down to Aswan, take a shufti, ask a few questions via Mahmoud, put a stick in the anthill, as it were. Mahmoud is a sharp djundi, he can sort out the black tarbooshes from the white.”

 

“Fair enough.” York hesitated, then said, “Can I ask a favor? I have a date this evening with a stewardess from my flight over here.”

 

“You’re living up to your reputation, I see.”

 

“Her name is Melody. She seems like a very nice girl. Still, I’d feel more secure if the London office did a quick background check.”

 

“It might take a bit.”

 

“That’s fine. I don’t need the information until, say, a quarter of eight.” Giles shook his head in mild disbelief and made a note on a scrap of paper. “So tell me,” York said. “What do you make of this guy Nasser?”

 

“The fellahin love him. Al Rayyes, they call him. The Chief. He could have been the King of Araby. Still could, I daresay.”

 

“That’s the problem, isn’t it? I mean, that’s why I’m here, to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

 

“Oh, we’ve done our best to put the kibosh on it. Cutting off his handouts. Giving aid and comfort to his enemies, from Prince Faisal and the Saudis to Hussein in Jordan to the Moslem Brotherhood here at home. Not to mention Israel.”

 

“He’s a Red, Giles. He’s buying guns from the Soviets and taking their rubles to build his dam. Nationalizing Suez and all the European companies in Egypt. Redistributing land.”

 

Giles leaned across the desk, his weight on his forearms. “When I was a lad, everybody was a Communist. Including some of the people who are yelling the loudest now about the Red Menace.”

“Including you?”

“I never cared for parties. The thing is, Nasser’s no Commie. He throws them in jail every chance he gets. All he wants is a secular Arab state. And he’s right, too, by God. You want real trouble, put a religious nutcase in charge. I don’t care if he’s a Hindoo, Musulman, Jew, or Southern Baptist. You don’t want people in charge of armed forces who think they’re getting orders from God.”

“So you’re against this mission.”

Giles retreated into his chair. “I don’t make policy. I do what I’m told except in the most extreme cases. No, I don’t like this mission or the harm it would do a lot of ordinary working joes in this country. But I’ve been in this station a long time, and I intend to be here another five years and collect my piss-ant little pension and retire to someplace where it snows in the winter.

“So in other words, yes, I will help you blow up the Aswan Dam.”

#

York was in danger of dozing off in his overstuffed chair in the cavernous lobby of the Nile Hilton. He sat in front of a reproduction of an ancient bas-relief, lulled by the sound of running water, possibly piped in via hidden speakers in the ceiling.

Before wrinkles had a chance to set in his tropical-weight suit, he was roused by the sound of high heels on the marble floor. It was Melody, precisely on time. She wore a dark skirt that reached her ankles, a loose-fitting, long-sleeved black blouse that buttoned to the throat, and a black beret that hid most of her hair. As he got to his feet, she kissed his cheek and said, “Not the outfit you had envisioned, I expect.”

“You look lovely.”

“I prefer something sexier, myself, but it’s simply not worth the stares and the hostile remarks.”

“I admire your respect for the local culture.”

She laughed. “A respect born of fear.”

They walked out to the parking lot, on the opposite side of the hotel from the Nile. Zakkaria brought the Cadillac around; it had been freshly washed, inside and out. The boy had been adamant about driving, telling York that his life might be in danger otherwise.

York paused for a moment before getting in back next to Melody. The night was still and finally beginning to cool. The brightly lit façade of the Hilton, with its two-story mosaic of ancient symbols, pushed the darkness back into the surrounding trees. Reflections glimmered on the Nile on the far side of the hotel, and beyond it shone the lights of Gezira Island, where he was booked for lunch the next day. The beauty of the city had a fantastical quality, so green and lush in the midst of such a lifeless waste that it might have been no more than another mirage.

He got in the car. “Melody, this is my associate, Zakkaria. I tried to give him the night off, but he insisted on meeting you.”

Zakkaria turned sideways in the seat and kissed the hand that Melody had extended. “I am enchanted, miss.”

“I don’t wish to make you uncomfortable,” she said, “but if you could bring yourself to call me Melody at some point during the evening, I would be most pleased.”

“Yes, miss.”

“Would you mind driving us around for a bit before dinner? I thought we might take Mr. York through Garden City, then to dinner on Gezira. I have reservations for nine-thirty at the Cairo Tower.”

“Excellent choice, miss. The view should be spectacular tonight.”

As they settled into the leather seats, York caught a whiff of spice and vanilla. “Shalimar?” he asked.

“I’m impressed, Mr. York. Yes, it’s my Oriental scent. In London I wear Joy, when I can afford it.”

“I have something of a keen nose. It can be a nuisance in some quarters, but I’m grateful for it tonight.”

Zakkaria pulled out of the hotel into a traffic circle a hundred meters in diameter, filled with cars that barely moved.

“Do you know the local history?” Melody asked.

York shook his head. What little he did know he didn’t mind hearing again from her.

“A hundred years ago this was all part of the Ottoman Empire, until our lot put the boot in around 1882. Before that, Johnny Turk’s man was Ismail Pasha, and Ismail was seduced by the Paris Exhibition of 1867. He decided to build a Paris on the Nile with Egypt’s cotton export money. And that’s where all of this came from.” She pointed to the palatial pink granite building that occupied an entire city block downstream from the Hilton. “The Egyptian museum, where there’s so much stuff they’ve got King Tut in a glass case in a corner with odds and sods piled on top of him. This square here was originally named for Ismail. After they threw our lot out in 1919, people started calling it Tahrir, Liberation. It’s only officially had that name since Nasser tossed King Farouk out in fifty-two. Then there’s the Abdeen Palace, a few blocks east of here. Unbelievably luxurious and ornate. It’s supposed to be the presidential residence, but it’s too rich for the blood of Al Rayyes. There’s a revolutionary for you.”

“We passed it today. It’s amazing, really. All this beauty, all these trees and lily ponds and huge buildings, more or less imagined into existence by sheer force of will.”

 

“That’s it exactly. Aswan and Khartoum are much the same. It’s like walking into a run-down, overcrowded opium dream. It’s one of the things I love about it.”

 

They finally escaped at the far end of the circle, though the traffic remained heavy. “This next bit is Garden City,” Melody said, “another neighborhood dreamed up out of nothing, or at least nothing more than some orchards and farm land, this time by a big real estate company and a French agricultural engineer. All the streets curve back on themselves and change names. One of the stories they tell is that this was somebody’s brilliant idea to keep mobs from marching on the British embassy, which is in there somewhere, God knows where.”

 

Zakkaria turned right for a block, then right again, and suddenly they were surrounded by trees: towering ornamental palms, flowering flame trees and jacarandas. Black wrought-iron gates blocked long driveways that led to Italianate villas buried deep in the vegetation. They flashed in and out of visibility in the car’s headlights.

 

“It’s very posh here, obviously,” Melody said. “Yet affordable, by London standards. When I’m rich and famous, this is where I shall come to retreat from the world.”

Zakkaria, with help from Melody and only a couple of wrong turns, managed to extricate them from Garden City, get them through the Tahrir traffic circle, and onto a short, flat bridge whose supports rested on small concrete islands in the Nile.

Gezira was large enough to not feel like an island once York was on it. It was the brightest part of the city and traffic there was worse than ever, crawling past the glowing façades of restaurants and night clubs. Above it all rose a huge minaret, 200 meters tall, lit by purple floodlights, with floor-to-ceiling windows that opened into the rotating restaurant at the apex. It was to this tower that Zakkaria brought them at 9:29.

York and Melody tried in vain to get Zakkaria to come to dinner with them. “My place is with the car,” he said firmly. “You must go now, sir, or you will lose your reservation.”

The view was indeed magnificent. York looked past Melody’s right shoulder to see the pyramids and Sphinx on the west bank of the Nile, lit up like a Hollywood premiere. Over her left shoulder were the scattered lights of the new housing development in progress to the north of Giza.

“It must be disorienting to travel so constantly,” York said. “I travel a good deal myself, but nothing like you do.”

“There’s no continuity,” Melody said. “My life is in episodes, like a television program, not a great sweeping novel like War and Peace. Therefore I try to make each episode count for something. One good way is to cast interesting guest stars. Like you, for instance. What is it that makes you travel so much?”

York slowly rotated his glass on the white tablecloth, counter-clockwise, opposite to the direction the restaurant was turning beneath him. The glass was half-full of the local beer, Stella, at Melody’s suggestion. He’d drunk very little for fear of intensifying his fatigue.

He didn’t feel up to the usual pat answers to her question. “I don’t want to lie to you. And I’m not allowed to tell you the truth about my job. I can say that what I do involves a great deal of other people’s money.” It was true enough, if more misleading than helpful.

Melody smiled with obvious pleasure. “I do love a good mystery. Now I shall be forced to piece together the various clues you let slip. Do you have family, Mr. York? Are you allowed to talk about that?”

“I’ve never been married, not involved with anyone, no children. Both parents are still living, and quite well off, though we don’t have a lot of contact. They wanted me to pursue the family business.”

“I don’t suppose you can tell me what that business is?”

York shook his head and smiled. “We’ll do better talking about you, I’m afraid. You really seem to love it here. It’s quite remarkable the way you’ve made yourself at home.”

“Well,” she said. “Yes and no. There are ways in which I shall always be at a distance.”

“How so?”

“It’s the women, you see. They’re not just second class citizens as they are most everywhere. There’s a huge number of women in this country who are essentially prisoners. They’re not allowed an education, let alone a profession. They’re sequestered in their parents’ house from birth until they’re married, which is supposed to somehow happen without the prospective groom ever seeing his bride before the wedding. Then they’re shut in the husband’s house, cooking and cleaning and having children, and if they go outside they have to be wrapped up from head to foot.

“There’s a certain sort of religious zealot here who believes that women are carnal monsters, and men are their weak, helpless prey. Even the sight of a lock of a woman’s hair in public can so inflame the passions of these poor creatures as to make them lose all control of themselves. And if they were to attack such a woman, it would be her fault, for having tempted them beyond all reason.”

“Thus your conservative clothes.”

“Yes. I still get some hostile stares, but far fewer than I used to. And things are changing, slowly, in part thanks to Al Rayyes. More and more women are refusing to go along with the traditions.”

She was smiling, though clearly it was an uncomfortable subject. York tried a different tack. “You mentioned being rich and famous one day. What is it you’re going to be famous for?”

She visibly relaxed. “I haven’t quite decided that yet. I assume that if I keep placing myself in the way of adventure, my destiny will eventually reveal itself. Do you believe in destiny, Mr. York?”

“Only in the ones we create for ourselves.”

“That sounds a frightfully heavy responsibility.”

“It has its rewards.”

Dinner arrived. Though the menu relied heavily on European dishes, Melody had pushed him toward the local cuisine, which was largely vegetarian. York had settled on koshari, an odd-looking combination of rice, chickpeas, lentils, and macaroni in tomato sauce that proved quite delicious. She showed him how to eat it using the local flatbread instead of silverware and shared her ful madamas, a dish made with fava beans. She had a mixture of innocence and lack of inhibition that York found utterly charming.

Even so, once the plates were cleared away, he found that his reserves were gone. He reached across the table and took both of her hands. “This has been a completely lovely evening, in every way. But I’m done in, and I really should be in bed.”

“What a capital idea,” she said. “Let’s.”

#

It was eleven the next morning before York was able to drag himself from bed. He’d slept deeply, although with several interruptions from Melody, whose eagerness to please was exceeded only by the intensity of her own desire. He sponged off a few critical areas with a washcloth and put his trousers on. As he shaved, he watched Melody in the mirror as she slowly turned over in the thoroughly rumpled bed, reached out one arm to find him gone, then sat up and stretched. He felt a pang as the sheet fell away from her.

“Well, my goodness, Mr. York,” she said in mid-yawn, meeting his reflected gaze. “You certainly know your way around a woman’s body.”

“And a magnificent body it is,” he said. “Where is it going to be later this evening?”

“On its way to London, unfortunately.” She got out of bed and stretched again, knowing he was watching, then snatched a terrycloth robe from an armchair and threw it on. She ran across the room to open the sliding glass door to the balcony. “Oh, you must come look. You can see Giza from here, the pyramids and the Sphinx and everything.”

He went to her and embraced her from behind. The view, as he’d noted the previous afternoon, was indeed stunning, almost enough to distract him from the woman in his arms. “Will you be back?” he asked.

“Someday. Don’t fret, love. I assure you this has been an absolutely smashing episode, and if the stars align, perhaps we’ll make the sequel.” She turned, kissed him lightly, and said, “But you have your luncheon and I have my flight, and right now I desperately need the loo.”

#

The main clubhouse of the Al Gezira Sporting Club was two stories of pink stucco surrounded by acacia trees. According to Zakkaria, the trees were a legacy from its days as a botanical garden, before the British built their polo fields and tennis courts and 18-hole golf course. The golf course was only nine holes now, thanks to Nasser’s addition of a youth club.

York walked into the high-ceilinged lobby, looking for Mahmoud, his translator. A tall woman in a stylish black business suit approached him and said, “Mr. York?”

She appeared to be Egyptian, her thick black hair falling to her shoulders, loosely secured with a black silk Hermes scarf. She wore heavy, black-framed glasses that distracted attention from her eyes, which were large, dark, and outlined in kohl. What he could see of her figure beneath the suit was lush and shapely. She had a clean, talcum powder scent that was more child than woman.

“I’m afraid,” she said, “Mahmoud was taken ill last night and may not be available for several days.” Her English was crisp and fluent. The British flavor reminded him of Melody, a thought that stung him unexpectedly. “My name is Nadya Moustafa. The Embassy arranged for me to take his place.” York accepted the hand she offered, which was cool and dry. She pressed his fingers gently and let go. “I’ve arranged an outdoor table, if that’s acceptable. It’s cooler in the open air, and there is shade.”

“Quite acceptable,” York said.

“The Minister will be late, of course. A matter of demonstrating his importance. You can order a drink if you like.”

“No, thanks. If we do have a few minutes, there is a phone call I need to make.”

“There are telephones around the corner, just there.”

He called Giles. “There’s a woman here named Nadya Moustafa. Five eight or nine, black hair, late twenties, attractive. Claims Mahmoud is indisposed and she’s a substitute.”

“Christ. Hold on, I’ll check.”

It took less than a minute.

“The Embassy vouches for her,” Giles said. “Worked there for a couple of years. Utterly dependable, they said. And she’s been briefed.”

“That’s all well and good, but she’s a woman.”

“Yes,” Giles said. “The second one I’ve had to vet for you in less than twenty-four hours.”

“Humor aside, this is an Arab country. There are places I need to go where she won’t be allowed.”

“They assure me it’s a temporary situation. We can arrange to have Mahmoud meet you in Aswan once he’s recovered. And I think you’ll find that things have changed significantly under Nasser. Some don’t like it, but women have made significant strides on his watch.”

York found his way out to the patio. There were twenty or so oblong granite-topped tables and rattan armchairs in the intermittent shade of the acacias, half of them occupied. Nadya had managed to secure one under a large turquoise-and-white umbrella. In the near distance, York heard the irregular clop of tennis balls being struck.

Nadya ordered a tonic water and York did the same. In ten minutes of idle conversation he learned that she had been born and raised in Cairo, educated at the London School of Economics, and saw translating for the Embassy as a stepping stone to a government position.

“Anything specific in mind?” York asked.

“President,” Nadya said. She smiled. “I realize that may be a bit of a non-starter. I intend to try, nonetheless.” She looked up. “Ah. Here’s Minister Fayed now.”

Previous assignments in the USSR had prepared York for thuggish low-level ministers barely distinguishable from gangsters. Fayed was instead slight, balding, and nervous, with dandruff flakes on his suit coat and smudges on his wire-rimmed glasses. York stood and Fayed gave his hand a single sharp squeeze.

Fayed summoned a waiter to ask for coffee and, through Nadya, exchanged a few pro-forma pleasantries with York. They ordered lunch, with York opting for an omelet and fresh orange juice, Fayed for lamb, and Nadya for a salad. When the conversation finally lagged, York said, “I understand you might be able to accept a small contribution toward President Nasser’s efforts to build the High Dam.” He placed the envelope of cash on the table and slid it a cautious two inches toward the minister’s cup. The envelope disappeared as if by sleight of hand and another envelope replaced it. Fayed relaxed minutely.

“And he understands,” Nadya translated, “that you are perhaps interested in seeing the progress that’s been made.”

“Very much so,” York said, slipping the new envelope into his jacket pocket.

“There is a flight to Aswan this evening at six. We are to be at Gate 1, Almaza Airport, by 5:30. Your name will be on the manifest for two seats. He regrets that he cannot provide accommodations for us in Aswan. He does recommend the Cataract Hotel. Very historical, very luxurious. So he hears.”

The food arrived. York could not conceal his surprise at the flavor of the omelet. Through Nadya, Fayed said, “Yesterday those eggs were still inside the chicken. The cheese was made here in Cairo and is no older than the eggs. Neither have ever been refrigerated. One of the pleasures of a backward country is that we don’t put a lot of technology between ourselves and our food.”

“I would hardly call this a backward country,” York said.

“You have not been outside Cairo yet.”

York was mopping up his plate with a slice of rich, dark bread when a man appeared beside him. The other diners were in European clothes while this man wore an off-white embroidered tunic over loose matching trousers. An off-white skullcap sat atop long dark hair. He was York’s height, six feet, and appeared to be in his early twenties and quite fit.

“I apologize profusely for interrupting,” he said in English, though he did not appear to be sorry at all. “At your convenience, my employer would like you to join him.”

“Your employer?”

“Dr. Helios.”

He clearly expected York to know the name. Minister Fayed certainly recognized it; his expression changed first to one of pure fear, then to nervousness raised to an even higher pitch.

“And the rest of my party?” York asked. “It would be rude to leave them.”

Fayed blurted something to Nadya, stood abruptly, tossed his napkin on his unfinished plate, and hurried away. “Minister Fayed has another engagement,” she said. “Quite pressing, it seems.”

“Dr. Helios’s English is quite accomplished,” the stranger said, “so no translation will be required.”

 

York glanced an inquiry at Nadya, who whispered, “Go. Go now.”

 

York drained his orange juice and followed the stranger across the patio. “Am I the only one here who is not familiar with Dr. Helios?”

 

“Quite possibly,” said the stranger, ignoring the hint.

 

They arrived at a large table on the far side of the patio, a good five meters from the nearest of the other diners. A gnarled and stately banyan tree put the table in complete shade.

 

“Dr. Helios,” the stranger said.

 

A mountain of a man in a blazing orange caftan rose from the far side of the table and extended a gigantic arm. He was at least six foot seven and three hundred pounds, built like a lineman in American football who had begun to go to seed. His head was shaved beneath a black fez, his eyes equally black.

 

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. York.” His English was mellifluous and seasoned with Mediterranean accents. “Can you join us?”

 

York inclined his head.

 

Helios gestured toward a young Oriental, who stood and offered a curt bow. He had longish hair, penetrating eyes, and a hint of a superior smile. He wore a loose black cotton robe, black pants, and sandals. “This is Mr. Chang, originally of Peking,” Helios said. “Now my head of security.”

 

York bowed in return, certain that Chang was sizing him up as a possible opponent. He was close enough to smell cigarette smoke in Chang’s clothes, of a peculiar flavor that he couldn’t immediately place.

 

Helios said, “And you’ve met my secretary, Mr. Kamal,” pointing to the young man who had brought York to the table. “Please take a seat.”

 

York sat. Chang was to his left, Kamal to his right, and Helios returned to the chair facing him. For a big man, Helios moved lightly, as if unaware of his size.

 

In front of Helios lay a platter containing the remains of an entire roasted chicken: rib cage, leg bones, a few scraps of skin. Three grains of couscous and a bit of melted butter were all that were left on his plate. An empty liter bottle of mineral water sat upside-down in an ice bucket. Both Chang and Kamal had half-finished meals of their own.

 

“Can I offer you refreshment?” Helios asked. “We were about to order coffee.”

 

“Coffee would be fine.”

 

“I find hot coffee in the heat of the day to be paradoxically refreshing.” He raised his hand and snapped his fingers. Immediately three waiters set about clearing the debris, one of whom quickly returned with four glasses of thick Turkish-style coffee.

 

Helios commented on the weather while York nodded and maintained a pleasant expression. He then inquired whether York’s flight had been smooth and his hotel comfortable. The performance satisfied the minimum requirements for small talk while letting York know that he was under observation.

 

Eventually Helios said, “You are no doubt wondering why I sought you out. I believe we share an interest in al-Saad al-Aali. The Aswan High Dam.”

 

John York, the character he was portraying, had nothing to hide, no reason to be anything other than eager to discuss his mission. “That’s correct. I’m hoping to do some business with President Nasser’s government.”

 

“I am a businessman myself. Might I ask what sort of business you’re in?”

 

“Heavy construction equipment. I represent a consortium of American manufacturers—Allis-Chalmers, John Deere, Caterpillar, all major names. We know the Russian equipment is no good. The Ulanshev excavators are clumsy at best, and the BelAZ dump trucks spend more time in the shop than on the job.” He happened to glance at Chang as he finished the sentence and felt a chill at the intensity with which the man was staring at him. “Anyway,” he recovered, “I believe there are mutual interests that can be served here.”

 

“Is this legal?” Helios asked. “I thought your government was opposed to Nasser.”

 

“President Kennedy feels more warmly toward him than Eisenhower did.” York didn’t mention that the Director of the Agency did not share those sentiments. “And the US government tends to see reason when there’s money to be made.”

 

Chang spoke for the first time. “I thought the Russian aid was contingent upon using Russian equipment.” He had an intriguing accent, his liquid consonants muffled, his cadences not quite Chinese or European.

 

“They’ve had to back down,” York said. “Even the Russians finally admitted that they couldn’t make their timetables without better tools.”

 

“You’ll be traveling to Aswan, then,” Helios said.

 

“Yes, I need to see the work in progress. Maybe I’ll get a chance to see Abu Simbel while I’m there.”

 

“Alas,” Helios said, “the government has closed access to Abu Simbel because of the dam project.” York tried to remember if he’d ever heard anyone use the word “alas” in conversation before. “You know that if they do finish the dam, they’re going to have to dismantle Abu Simbel and rebuild it on higher ground.”

“‘If?’” York said. “I didn’t think there was any question about it at this point.”

“Ah, you are correct, sir. They have indeed accelerated the work sufficiently that, barring some sort of disaster, they will in fact complete the dam. It was a near thing, though. A very near thing. As you know, they have inflexible deadlines imposed by the annual rise and fall of the Nile. It was only in the last few weeks that legitimate predictions began to bear out the optimism that the government has been disseminating.”

“May I ask what your interest in all this is?”

“My business is shipping. Import and export. Oil. I have business up and down the Nile, and obstacles to that business concern me greatly.”

“You see the High Dam as an obstacle?”

“At one time, plans for the dam included locks. Sadly, that is no longer the case. It could prove expensive for me. As Nasser has shown little concern for international business in the past, I doubt he will have much sympathy for my troubles.”

“We may be on opposite sides of this issue,” York said. “I’m here to help the dam get built, and you oppose it.”

“Don’t misunderstand me, sir. The dam is good for the economy, and I am a firm believer in economic growth. Is creates all manner of opportunities. It gives you the opportunity to sell your heavy equipment, and provides me opportunities of my own.”

Helios stood again, signaling that the audience was over. “Thank you for being so generous with your time,” he said. “Perhaps our paths will cross again.”

#

He called Giles again from the same phone in the lobby. “What do you know about a guy that calls himself Dr. Helios?”

“I know there’s a dossier on him at Langley. Top Secret clearance required. I know he’s got a Get Out of Jail Free card straight from the Director. We keep nothing on him here, do not surveil, do not ask questions.”

“What’s he a doctor of?”

“I believe it’s an honorary degree. PhD in economics, Harvard Business School. He is considered friendly and not to be disturbed. Why the sudden interest?”

“I just had lunch with him. I didn’t find him that friendly.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Giles said. “He’s not relevant.”

#

The plane to Aswan was a DC-3, the workhorse of the third world—reliable, easy to maintain, able to take off and land on short runways or even, on one occasion York would not soon forget, on a strip of beach as the tide was going out.

As they taxied into the setting sun, Nadya said, “Bismillahi rahmani rahim.” When York gave her a questioning look she said, “The opening words of the Koran. ‘In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.’ A suitable thing to say when beginning something. A journey, a meal, a business venture.”

“I’d wondered if you were religious. The veil isn’t mandatory, I take it?”

“The Koran says we should not display our charms beyond what is acceptable, which allows rather wide interpretation, don’t you think? I believe it’s pretty clear what God had in mind. Devout women should not dress as if they were advertising their sexuality, according to contemporary standards.”

“And yet…”

“And yet, indeed. What a different world it would be if people followed the clear intent of their sacred texts instead of using them to excuse bad behavior. And you? Are you religious?”

“In my country, religion has so little impact on daily life that most people have stopped going through the motions.”

“Yes, you have declared God dead there, haven’t you?”

“I think Nietzsche was the first, but yes, you hear that more and more.”

“You don’t see the hand of God, then.”

“I’m afraid not. And I see far too much of the hand of man.”

“Talking of the hand of man, I’m afraid I’m not terribly comfortable with flying. At least the taking off and landing bits. Would you mind terribly if I held your hand, only until we’re in the air?”

“Of course not,” York said. She was intelligent, ambitious, and brave enough to defy custom in her dress. This show of weakness was out of character, and rather unconvincing. Still, she was a beautiful woman, and York was happy to take her hand, which was more lean and powerful than he had noticed that morning.

The engines revved to a piercing scream and Nadya gripped his hand fiercely. Her eyes squeezed shut and she leaned back in the seat, mouthing what York assumed was a prayer. The plane bounced twice on the runway and lifted off. It banked steeply over the city, giving a brief glimpse of tan buildings and clumps of green along the river, then leveled off. As the pilot throttled back the propellers, Nadya gently pressed his hand once more and let go.

There were eight other passengers on the plane, all Arab men in suits. They sat in ones and twos throughout the cabin, none of them within hearing range. Below, the Nile was a glittering thread in a darkening khaki fabric. Across the aisle, York saw the setting sun, and from his own window, the rising moon. The moon appeared to be gigantic, as if it were hurtling toward the Earth to shatter it with a single blow.

Nadya took a worn leather-bound book out of her purse, opened it in the middle, and began to read. York glanced at the page; it was printed in Arabic. “The Koran,” she said. “It’s very soothing to read, when you’re afraid.”

“I’ll remember that,” York said, though the times he’d been most afraid had not permitted any reading.

He closed his eyes and fell into a deep sleep.

#

 

“The Nile has six cataracts,” Nadya said, “numbered in reverse order.” They stood on the terrace of the Cataract Hotel, listening to the rush of water in the darkness forty feet below. Islands shone white in the moonlight, ranging in size from a few feet in diameter to those, like the one directly across from them, that held entire neighborhoods. “You would call them white-water rapids in America, I think. This is the First Cataract here, actually the last before the Nile flows into the sea. The Second is across the border in Sudan, at Wadi Halfa. Wadi Halfa will be under water when the High Dam is finished.”

“The Sudanese can’t be too happy about that.”

“Reparations are being paid, and a whole new city is being built for them, Khashm al-Girba, in a part of the country where there is rain and they can farm more successfully.”

“There’s not much room for sentiment in that point of view.”

“The world is changing,” Nadya said. “The Arab countries are coming out of the darkness into the light. Literally, with the new hydroelectric station producing enough electricity to light half the country. That’s worth some sacrifices.”

“Spoken like a true socialist,” York said.

“You know, socialism is not a curse word anywhere except your country. I wonder why you are all so afraid of it.”

“We’re very attached to our freedoms.”

“Freedom to be poor, to be hungry, to have no medical care?”

“Yes, I suppose so, if necessary.”

“I think perhaps your country is more religious than you give it credit for. Enterprise is your God, and Communism your Satan.”

It was one of the mildest arguments York had ever had. They were both smiling, neither of them with serious emotions engaged. Part of the reason was the tranquility of the setting. While Aswan was not as European as Cairo, it was nonetheless green and civilized, even if temporarily overrun with Russian engineers. The Cataract Hotel itself was magnificent, three stories of red brick and granite, with interiors out of a Busby Berkeley Old Kingdom spectacular: huge circular archways decorated in red and white stripes, shining parquet and marble floors, giant clay urns, potted palms, Persian carpets, awnings, oiled wood cabinetry.

“Tell me,” York said, “what do you know about this man Helios?”

“You’re changing the subject.”

“Yes, I am. I don’t enjoy talking about politics.”

“Or thinking about it?”

“Not really.”

“You of all people should be thinking about it.”

“Does the foot soldier question foreign policy?”

“If he did, there might be fewer wars.”

“Or greater losses on both sides. Tell me about Helios.”

Nadya sighed. “Talking of enterprise, he’s ludicrously rich. Half Greek, half Egyptian. Lives in Abu Dhabi, one of the emirates on the Arabian Gulf. He owns the Helios oil company, which sells crude oil to all the major refiners—Esso, Shell, British Petroleum. You’ve heard of it, I’m sure.”

York nodded. “I hadn’t made the connection.”

“He owns a fleet of tankers to transport it, refineries to produce it, wells to pull it out of the ground. Some say he also owns the politicians he needs for everything to flow smoothly.”

“Why would he be interested in the High Dam?”

“That’s a fair question. Certainly he hates socialism too, but that hardly seems sufficient motive.” She ducked her head and held one hand in front of a yawn. “Sorry. But if you’re not even going to argue with me, I don’t know how I’m meant to stay awake.”

“Forgive me,” York said. “It’s been a long day for both of us.” He walked her to her room, wondering idly if she were flirting with him, but too exhausted to press the question.

#

The road out of the city took them south, past dusty neighborhoods that bordered on the green farmland along the Nile. The houses were adobe and plaster, one story, with flat roofs that needed to withstand sun, but never rain. They were much like, York imagined, the houses in Wadi Halfa that would dissolve into lumps of mud when the floodwaters began to surge against their walls.

Nadya had spent close to an hour on the hotel phone that morning working her way through the hierarchy of engineers to get York an appointment with the first assistant to Sidki Suleiman, the Minister of the High Dam. Shortly after ten o’clock a Land Rover had arrived to pick them up. The vehicle’s original paint job appeared to be the same shade of beige as the dust that covered it from canvas top to balding tires.

York and Nadya had both crowded into the bench seat next to the driver. The Rover was British-made, putting the driver on the right; Nadya sat in the middle to facilitate translation. She wore khaki jodhpurs and long sleeved shirt, her thick black hair pinned up beneath a long-billed cap. She clearly made the driver, who was wearing virtually the same outfit, uncomfortable. York, in gray slacks and a white shirt, had broken into a sweat the moment he’d stepped outside the hotel.

As the houses dwindled into the desert, the original Aswan Dam, built by the British at the turn of the century, came into view ahead, its buttressed masonry walls standing a hundred feet high. The Rover turned onto the top of the dam, putting a sky-blue lake two kilometers wide on York’s left, and a tumbled landscape of granite outcroppings, grass, and acacia trees on his right. The humbled Nile lay in a deep channel to the west. York looked past the driver toward the First Cataract, a landscape of blue water and white islands where triangular felucca sails tacked back and forth like slow, pale butterflies. The sunlight was so powerful that it bleached the panorama like an old photograph.

 

The scene had a timelessness, an immunity to change, that carried a powerful emotional resonance. Those feluccas, those rocks, those fishermen had been there since the days of the pharaohs, and they conjured a defiance, a sense that they would outlast the Aswan High Dam and the civilization that built it. They gave York a much-needed moment of perspective.

 

On the far side of the old dam lay the west bank, an expanse of dusty, broiling, hard packed desert that ran uninterrupted to the Libyan border. The Rover turned south again for five or six kilometers on a narrow strip of asphalt that drew a black line down an otherwise blank sheet of manila paper. The whine of the engine and the creak of the Rover’s stiff suspension were loud enough to discourage small talk.

 

Eventually they passed a turnoff with a sign in half a dozen languages; the English portion read “Workers Estate.” The driver said that many of the 30,000 workers employed on the dam project were quartered there. York glimpsed military barracks tents and improvised shelters made of cardboard, cloth, or jerry cans as the road curved toward the river again. Two minutes later they pulled up to the plain but modern cinderblock complex where the construction offices overlooked the dam site far below.

 

As York got out of the Rover, small explosions erupted in the valley like distant mortar fire, none of them sizeable enough to shake the high ground where he stood. He walked around to the front of the building and the spectacle of the excavation opened up before him. The work was concentrated on the east bank, where a thin wall of rock separated the riverbed from a vast trench that had been hacked and dynamited and chiseled from the granite bedrock. The mile-long trench ended at a solid granite wall, where two of the six tunnels in that wall were visible, fifty feet in diameter and eight hundred feet long. Those tunnels would eventually contain the turbines for the hydroelectric plant that was already taking shape high above, a broad, flat foundation of concrete that had sprouted a few low walls. By May of the next year, the Nile would be diverted through that channel and work on the main dam would begin.

At the moment the trench was a vision of hell. Smoke from the blasting trickled from the mouths of the tunnels as excavators lurched back and forth, striking sparks off the rock with their huge metal claws, and dump trucks crawled into position to receive their cargos of dust and rock. White-robed workmen climbed slowly over the uneven ground in the stupefying heat, only visible against the white granite when they were in motion.

Nadya touched his elbow. “The Assistant Minister is back from the site. We should go in now.”

The blockhouse was air-conditioned to the low eighties, enough of a contrast to give York a brief chill. Their somewhat surly driver led them up a flight of metal stairs to a white-walled office that looked out on the site. A plain gray steel desk was buried in maps, blueprints, invoices, reports, and correspondence. Sorting through the layers of paper was a good-looking man with salt and pepper hair and mustache, both neatly trimmed, wearing a sweat-stained white shirt and khaki pants.

“Minister Rashid,” the driver said, and excused himself.

Through Nadya, Rashid said, “Mornings are for explosions here. We go out after daybreak and begin planting the charges for the day’s work. You heard some of them going off, I’m sure. The idea is to create enough of a mess that, with God’s help, it will take all day and night to clean it up.”

“You’re working around the clock, then,” York said.

“Three shifts, yes, though we don’t get much accomplished in daylight because of the heat.”

York found himself distracted by a cross section of the projected dam that was pinned to the wall. Rashid noticed and walked around the desk. “You are familiar with rock-fill dams?”

“In principle, yes,” York said, “though I’ve never worked on one.”

“You are used to the vertical dam. Hoover Dam, Grand Coulee Dam, Fontana Dam.” It was strange to hear the English words in the midst of his rapid-fire Arabic, then to have to wait for Nadya to provide the context. “Those are only good when you have solid rock to build upon. Here the bed of the river is shifting sands. So you must make a gradual slope up and then down again.”

In fact the cross section showed a flattened pyramid.

“Al Rayyes’s pyramid, some call it,” Rashid quipped. “His bid for immortality. And I expect he’ll get it, too, God willing. To give you an idea, the amount of material in the dam will be fifteen times as much as in the Great Pyramid at Giza.”

“I’d like to take a closer look at the work,” York said. “Is that possible?”

“Yes, very possible. The sooner the better, however. It’s already forty degrees out there.” Nadya’s voice changed as she interpolated, “That’s well over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit.”

York smiled. “That’s all right, I speak Centigrade.”

They walked downstairs to the frying pan of the parking lot. “We only use locals during the heat of the day,” Rashid said. “The Cairenes can’t tolerate it.” As if summoned by telepathy, their driver pulled up next to them in the Rover. York and Nadya got in the back seat and they roared down to the edge of the lake, where a World War II landing craft had lowered its ramp onto the makeshift wooden dock. The boat was fifty feet long, painted in flaking silver, and wide enough for them to open the doors of the Rover and get out onto the metal deck. As they looked over the shoulder-high sides, York felt a cool, somewhat fetid breeze skim the gray-brown water.

“The river is at its highest now,” Rashid said. He and Nadya both had to shout over the roar of the massive diesel engine. “You can see the silt that’s washed down all the way from Uganda and Ethiopia. That is God’s gift of life to Egypt, fertilizing her crops every year since time began.”

“If you dam the river, doesn’t the silt settle out?” York asked.

“Much of it, yes. But we are building a fertilizer factory that will be powered by the hydroelectric plant, and that will more than make up for the deficit.”

It took only five minutes to cross the river, which was passing through a deep and narrow channel on its way to the old dam and the cataract. The Rover backed off the landing craft and got on a blacktop road that was crumbling at the edges; it took them to the edge of the pit. As they got out, Rashid got down on one knee and beckoned York over. “This is what we’re dealing with.” He pointed to a lighter spot in the blacktop. “There is only granite here. We had to blast the roadway out of solid rock. When we poured the asphalt, there were sharp bits of granite poking through everywhere. They tore the truck tires to ribbons. We had to send crews with hammers and chisels to clean the spikes of granite out of the road.”

As they stood up, a bulbous Russian BelAZ dump truck strained uphill toward them, engine screaming, two workmen hanging off of the back. It was filled to overflowing with chunks of pale granite.

“On its way to the holding area,” Rashid said. “Next year we begin dumping it upstream to build a temporary coffer dam. As soon as that is finished, we blow up the wall here and divert the Nile through those six tunnels.”

“What if that wall broke before you were ready?” York asked.

“We would be ruined. We would never meet our deadlines or our budget, the dam would never be finished, the government would probably fall, and Egypt would never be able to repay the money we borrowed to build it.” Rashid smiled. “But do not worry. The wall is strong and nothing will happen to it.”

#

At the hotel, York found the heat had exhausted him. He took two salt pills, drank a liter of water, showered, and slept for two hours. At four that afternoon he met Nadya in the lobby, where they picked up the keys to the car the hotel had hired for them.

York drove them over the same route they’d taken that morning, this time turning off into the workers’ estate. The worst of the shanties were at the edges; as they approached the center York saw block after block of single-story unfinished plywood sheds, windowless, utilitarian, with deadbolts and screen-door handles. They were sturdy enough for their purpose and reasonably clean.

A stub-nosed blue Russian minibus, filled to capacity, passed them as it headed toward the work site. A constant stream of pedestrians, working men in twos or threes, trudged purposefully down the dusty side streets.

At the center was the Arab Contractors’ Club, a great squared-off mass of concrete that occupied most of a city block, not counting the improbably blue swimming pool visible through a chain link fence. A middle-aged man in Western clothes was leaving the building, and York pulled up to the curb to ask him, “Do you speak English?”

The man smiled. “La, ana assif.”

To Nadya, York said, “Can you ask him about this place?”

It was a private club, Nadya translated, for workers hired by the Arab Contractors construction and engineering company, who had built the workers’ village and was one of several contractors on the dam. Guests had access to a movie theater, restaurant, game rooms, TV—luxuries many of them had never seen before.

“Shokran,” York said.

As they pulled away, Nadya said, “I thought you didn’t speak any Arabic.”

“A half dozen words. Please and thank you are the first to learn in any language, yes?”

He drove around to the back of the complex, where a concrete wall separated a row of garbage cans from the grounds. Someone had drawn two concentric circles on the wall in thin white paint. At that size, two meters high, it looked ominously like a target.

He parked on a side street. There were not many private vehicles in the estate and thus not many parking spaces. Like the construction offices, the club was lightly air-conditioned. Nadya talked to the uniformed security guard inside the front door, who smiled at York and swept his hand toward the lobby. “Welcome,” he said in English.

Nadya read the handwritten poster boards on the wall and said, “There’s meant to be a bar over there.”

York nodded and followed her into a small, dimly lit room. Despite stools lined up at a long wooden bar and a few tables with candles, the floor was linoleum tile and the only available drinks were non-alcoholic. The place was half full, the clientele of course all male, most of them dressed in western cast-offs—shabby pants and T-shirts or faded long-sleeved dress shirts.

Though they were out of earshot of the nearest customer as they stood in the doorway, York kept his voice low. “This is hopeless,” he said. “There must be at least, what, ten thousand workmen in this village? We know that some of them are part of this Al-Mashiah Ra outfit—we saw their handiwork on the wall. But my only contact is dead, I don’t speak the language, and they won’t talk to you because you’re a woman. I’ve got no way to even stir up trouble.”

Nadya patted his hand. “Leave it to me.”

“No disrespect, but what can you do?”

“More, perhaps, than you think. I’ll need the car later tonight. For now, let’s go back to the hotel and have an early dinner.”

“You intend to go out alone after dark?”

She smiled gently, reminding York of their “argument” the night before. “You’re not responsible for me. I’m employed by the Embassy, and I know my job. And God is wise and compassionate and I will be safe in his hands.”

#

They had dinner on the patio of the hotel, with the rushing river and the drifting feluccas already in twilight as the sun touched the western hills.

“Tell me, Mr. York,” Nadya said, “if I may be so bold, how did you end up in this line of work? The other men I’ve met in your profession generally resembled bureaucrats or salesmen.”

“I’ve never fit in,” he said at last. “My parents are quite well off, and even as a kid I disliked that feeling of privilege. I wanted to do something useful with my life, and they fought me at every turn. I think I might have been happy if I could have been an auto mechanic or a carpenter or something.”

“Why didn’t you? Once you were on your own, surely you could have taken up a trade?”

“There’s an entire culture that goes with that sort of work, and I don’t fit into that either.”

“I barely know you, yet I have a strong feeling that you’re at war with yourself. A war of self-determination, if you will.”

York shrugged uncomfortably.

“This job,” she went on, “lets you be many people, none of whom are really you. Perhaps this is part of why women find you so attractive. There’s the mystery, and there’s the sense that you need to be saved from yourself.”

York seized the chance to change the subject. “Are you speaking for yourself, here?”

“What do you mean?”

“When you say women find me attractive.”

After a pause, she said, “Theoretically, I suppose.”

“Only in theory?”

“Mr. York, you are pressing me for answers that I am perfectly willing to give, but that you might find uncomfortable.”

“If it’s that you prefer women, you won’t find me that easily shocked.”

“Do you really want the truth?”

“I care very much about the truth. Whatever other motives you may ascribe to me, the search for truth is one of the fundamental aspects of what I do. Breaking codes, discovering secrets.”

“And you wish to break my codes?”

“I would like to know your secrets, yes.”

“Very well then. If at some point this becomes too unpleasant for you, raise your hand or something and I’ll stop.”

“Now I really am intrigued.”

“Do you know what female circumcision is?”

“I expect I’ve heard of it.”

“It’s a deceptive term. It implies a minor cosmetic operation, a harmless religious ritual, like circumcision for males. In fact it is female castration. It is the complete removal of the clitoris, often with a rusty razor blade. From your expression I take it you are familiar with the clitoris. Cultures across Africa and the Middle East practice it. It is supposed to keep us from having lustful thoughts, and while it is not completely effective at that, it does make the notion of sexual fulfillment rather abstract. In the baldest terms, Mr. York, no orgasms. Over three quarters of the women in this country were subjected to this, usually as small children. Myself included. None of us will ever have an orgasm.”

York’s face was cold. His hands were cold. He set his knife and fork carefully on the table.

“I’m sorry,” Nadya said. “I should have waited until you finished eating.”

“It looks like I am finished.” He drank the last of his beer, which spread the chill to his stomach and groin. “How can you…how can you continue to be a Moslem when…”

“This has nothing do with Islam, Mr. York. This is an Arab phenomenon. They did this to women in the time of the pharaohs. Herodotus wrote about it in the fifth century BC. And, frankly, though I resent this being done to me against my will, I have a good life. I find sex pleasurable enough. I enjoy the intimacy. It’s possible to have other things to live for than sexual gratification.”

 

York found himself, for once, without words.

 

Nadya patted his hand. “Please don’t dwell on this. It’s simply the way things are here, and have been for thousands of years. Though I do hope for a future where things are different.” She looked at her watch. “Now, if I might have the car keys, I must go. I’ll call your room in the morning, hopefully with news.”

 

York handed her the keys. “And you won’t tell me where you’re going?”

 

“In the morning,” Nadya said, pushing back her chair, “all will be revealed.”

 

#

 

York spent a restless night, obsessively searching for a way to regain control of the mission. It was hardly fair; feelings of his life being out of control had led him to the Company in the first place.

 

When the phone woke him at 9:30, he had been dreaming of Russia, of a dacha in winter where the air was thick with smoke of Balkan Sobranie cigarettes, and as he came out of the dream he realized he had identified the heavy, sweet odor that he’d smelled on Chang’s clothes. The antidote to helplessness, it seemed, was to keep processing the available data, even in his sleep.

 

It was Nadya on the phone. He agreed to meet her at ten at the hotel restaurant.

 

When he got there, the sun shades were down on the covered patio and the thrumming of the ceiling fans blended into a jittery rhythm. York ordered three eggs and a small steak to make up for his lost appetite from the night before.

 

“I have a contact,” Nadya said. She wore loose off-white cotton trousers, a matching long-sleeved top and scarf, and sunglasses. “His name is Bisri al-Hakim.”

 

“Who is he?”

 

“He’s in charge of a work crew that’s finishing the insides of the tunnels on the two to ten p.m. shift. Over the last six months he has manipulated things such that his entire crew are now members of Al-Mashiah Ra.”

 

“How did you find him?”

 

She took off her sunglasses. Her eyes were bloodshot and puffy. She rubbed them wearily with the back of her hand. “I haven’t met Bisri himself yet. I spent the night talking to prostitutes. I shall need considerable reimbursement from petty cash.”

 

That many men, far from home, with more money than they’d ever seen before—naturally there would be prostitutes. And hashish, and gambling, no doubt. “We didn’t see any women at all yesterday.”

 

“The government is being realistic about it. The women have their own village on the far side of the workers’ estate. There are soldiers stationed there to keep things peaceful, which is apparently not that hard, as they are strict about the prohibition of spirits. There are doctors who are attempting to keep the women free of venereal disease and give them some basic education as to hygiene and birth control.”

 

“How did you figure all this out?”

 

“It wasn’t that difficult. I showed up at the estate dressed for the part and was quickly directed to where I needed to be.”

 

She showed him her mocking smile again, daring him to imagine her lush body in scant and tight fitting clothes. York felt an odd stab of jealousy. “You’re a remarkable woman,” he said, grudgingly. “Do you know how to find this Bisri?”

 

“If my new friend Hasnah is successful, we’ll meet him tonight at midnight.”

 

#

 

York asked her to call and cancel their lunch appointment with Minister Rashid, then get some sleep. She reluctantly agreed.

 

With the rest of the day before him, York wandered down to the river. A man in his early twenties called out to him, “English, you want sailboat ride? I take you cheap.” He had a blue and white striped galabiya and wore his tunic at a jaunty angle.

 

York liked the gleam in his eye. On impulse he asked, “Can you take me upstream to the dam?”

 

“Old dam, yes.” They settled on a price of five pounds. The man, whose name was Yusef, pushed the nose of his felucca into the river and held the stern while York climbed aboard, then pushed off and scrambled in after him. He fitted a rudder onto the rear of the boat and raised the sail, steering with one hand and handling the lines with the other.

 

The boat was fifteen feet long, made of unpainted wood that shone along the gunwales from the friction of many hands. It was crudely made and rode low in the water, but was sturdy and dry for all of that. The Nile smelled of silt and fish and the sunlight dazzled York’s eyes. The creak of the rudder and the sloshing of the water against the sides and the sigh of the mast as the sail filled against it brought him his first real peace in days.

 

Yusef recognized the quality of York’s attention. “You know how to sail, yes, English?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“You want to sail the boat? Five pounds more, I let you.”

 

“You want me to do the work and you get paid extra for it? If I do the sailing, you should pay me.”

 

Yusef laughed and luffed the sail. “No extra charge,” he said, and stood up. York carefully traded places with him and raised the sail again. It took him a minute to find the wind, and when he did, the felucca was slow to respond, wallowing heavily in the water. He got the hang of it quickly enough, though, and Yusef pointed him toward the channel that would take them upstream.

 

Sailing had been his method of choice to escape his parents. It had also given him an outlet for the recklessness that would take him like a black mood and send him into foul weather or into the shipping lanes to play hide and seek with freighters headed into Chesapeake Bay. Then, as now, it gave him something he had power over.

 

As they approached the dam, York said, “There’s no way to get upstream from here?”

 

“No, is as far as I go.”

“No portage, no locks, no way to get past the dam?”

“No, not since they build it, not for sixty years now. Nobody gets through.”

Later, in the deep water near the dam, Yusef pointed out something brown and conical, at its thickest the diameter of a car tire. As they closed on it, York smelled the decay.

“Catfish,” Yusef said. “Nile cat.”

Only the head remained, and it was three feet long. “My God,” York said. “How big was that when it was alive?”

“How big,” Yusef said, “is the fish that bite that head off?”

#

Hasnah was not permitted in the men’s housing estate, so the meet was set for a public square in the village of the prostitutes, a kind of souk for female flesh. Crude park benches lined the sides of the square, in pairs, back to back, so that prospective clients could walk around an inner circle and an outer circle before making a selection. At each corner, a uniformed policeman with an M-1 rifle slouched and bantered listlessly with the women nearest him. A string of bare, low-wattage bulbs hung above each row of benches. Fewer than thirty women were on offer as York and Nadya drove up. York parked in the shadow of an apartment block next to the square.

Like most of the working-class prostitutes that York had encountered, these women were not romantic figures. Many were in a fog of hashish, opium, or worse. As each new man approached, some attempted a weary smile or a mildly provocative pose. Most took for granted that they would be chosen eventually. As York watched, a steady stream of customers arrived, made quick selections, and disappeared again into the darkness. A roughly equivalent stream of women arrived to replace the ones chosen.

Midnight came and went. At 12:20 a man and woman entered the square together and Nadya, suddenly tense, said, “That’s Hasnah.”

Hasnah was short, dark skinned, and fashionably plump. She wore a flowered shift with sweat stains under the arms and a low neckline that advertised her best features. The man with her was nothing like what York had imagined. He was Nubian rather than Arab, very dark skinned, with a large, flat nose and generous lips. He wore a galabiya, a brightly colored skull cap, and leather sandals. He was five foot ten, heavy-set in an athletic way, and radiated good cheer.

Nadya got out and walked toward them as Bisri looked her over appreciatively, head to toe. York couldn’t hear their voices, only read their body language. Bisri was reluctant, Hasnah nervous. After a minute of conversation, Nadya gave Hasnah a folded banknote and she walked quickly away. Bisri followed Nadya to the car and sat in the passenger seat while Nadya got in the back.

“Good evening,” York said. “Thank you for talking with me.”

As Nadya started to translate, Bisri waved one large hand. “I have some English. I was cook for a British regiment for many years.” He was turned sideways in the seat, his attention directed out the windshield.

“How did you end up in construction?”

“I had a change in my heart.” He patted his chest. “The English, begging your pardon, are the enemy. Egypt should be for the Egyptians.”

“Isn’t the High Dam for Egyptians too?”

“It is for the glory of Gamal Abdul Nasser. It makes us owing the Soviets, like before we were owing the British.”

“But you’re helping to build it.”

“A man has to eat.”

“It also puts you in a position to do harm.”

“Why would I want to do that?”

Bisri had neatly put him on the defensive. York attempted to regroup. “There are a lot of people who would like to see the dam fail. For a lot of reasons.”

“Including you?”

“Yes.”

“Why? Are you CIA?” The big man’s smile did not hide the light of cunning in his eyes.

“I represent a group of businessmen who don’t want to see the Soviets get a foothold in the Middle East.”

“Businessmen with money?”

At last, York thought, we come to the point. “That’s right.”

“Money to see, as you say, the dam to fail.”

“Yes.”

“So why do you come to me?”

“Because I think maybe you don’t like Nasser any more than we do.”

“Who tell you that? Did Hasnah tell you that?” York didn’t answer. “Hasnah is a whore. You shouldn’t listen to whores.” He glanced over his shoulder at Nadya.

York felt him slipping away. “Do you know anything about a group called Al-Mashiah Ra?”

He saw his mistake as soon as the words were out. Bisri looked him directly in the eyes for the first time and his smile fell away. “No,” he said. He got out of the car, then leaned in the open window to say, “I think you have the wrong man.”

As he walked away, Nadya said, “That went well.”

“I’m out of my depth,” York said.

“Yes, I think you are. And I fear we have cost Hasnah a beating.”

“Damn.”

Nadya got in the passenger seat. “There’s nothing more to be done tonight. We might as well go back to the hotel.”

#

Half a kilometer from the square, the headlights picked up a crude sawhorse blocking the street. A teenage boy in a galabiya sat on top of it, waving them toward an alley.

“I don’t like the look of this,” York said, slowing. “Ask him what’s the matter.”

York stopped a few meters short of the boy and Nadya stuck her head out the window and called to him. The boy, instead of answering, slipped off the sawhorse and ran away.

“Something’s fishy,” York said. Before he could put the car in reverse, someone rushed out of the darkness with a length of two-by-four and smashed the windshield. York’s door flew open and hands dragged him onto the pavement.

They were amateurs, fortunately, all of them trying to throw kicks and punches at once. York bent over, partly to shield himself, mostly to get his feet under him. Once he was grounded, he threw a side kick that took out the knee of the man closest to him. The man went down with a scream and York turned, grabbed an arm, and threw a second man over his back and onto the ground. With space now to get his bearings, he saw three more men on his side of the car, including the one with the two-by-four. York took the board away and hit him in the solar plexus with one end. The other two ran away.

A gunshot echoed off the plywood walls. York spun around to see Nadya pointing a small caliber automatic at the sky as two men fled from her.

The shot would bring the Army in moments. “Get in the car,” he ordered. He threw the sawhorse aside and climbed in as Nadya was closing her door. He still had the two-by-four and he used it to clear a hole big enough to navigate by in the spiderwebbed windshield. As he put the car in gear, bits of safety glass scattered across the seat and floor.

“That was very impressive,” Nadya said.

“You shouldn’t have used the gun,” York said. “Now when they come back, they’ll have guns too.”

“You’re not armed?”

“I avoid it if I can. Guns are usually more trouble than they’re worth. I’m surprised you carry one.”

“Are you really? With the way women are treated in this country?” She was being facile, but York lacked the patience to pursue it.

After a long pause, Nadya said, “What do we do now?”

“This man Bisri is our only lead. I’m going to have to shadow him.”

“How are you even going to find him again?”

“I’ll find him,” York said.

#

They rode to the hotel in uncomfortable silence, York brooding over the many ways the mission was spiraling toward failure. He had to keep his speed below fifty k.p.h. to prevent the surprisingly cool wind that came through the hole in the windshield from blinding him.

He left the car keys with Nadya along with instructions to call the car hire agency for a replacement in the morning. Their mutual fault-finding had left them wary of each other and their farewells were curt.

York took a hot shower and inventoried his bruises, all of which were minor. It was 2:30 by the time he was in bed, and he had to resort to one of the mantras he’d learned in Burma in order to relax enough to fall asleep.

He came instantly awake again before dawn when he heard a click at his door. With no hesitation, he rolled out of the far side of the bed and lay on the floor, hidden by the trailing edge of the duvet. The door clicked again and made a brushing noise on the carpet as it swung open. A second later the bed shook as the intruders pounded on it with some sort of clubs.

There was silence, then muffled cursing in Arabic. When the overhead lights came on, the duvet shielded his eyes enough to keep him from being blinded. When he was sure that he could see clearly, he rolled away from the bed and sprang to his feet.

There were only two men this time. They wore dark pants and T-shirts and zip jackets, and they carried lengths of bamboo. One of them took a cricket batter’s swing at York that he easily sidestepped, then he moved in quickly and punched the man in his large gut and his throat. As the other man turned to run, York tackled him, driving his head into the door frame.

With both men incapacitated, York started toward the phone to call the front desk, then changed his mind. He took a pen knife from his trousers where they lay over a chair and used it to rip one of the sheets into wide strips. He quickly bound and gagged both men, then made a quick search of their pockets that revealed, as he expected, nothing at all.

He called Nadya’s room. She answered groggily on the third ring.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes, why?”

“I’ve had visitors. Is your gun handy?”

“It’s beside the bed.”

“Get dressed and wait to hear from me. If anyone tries to come through your door without knocking, shoot them.”

His second call was to his emergency contact in Aswan. Then he put on fresh clothes, packed his garment bag, and made a half-hearted effort to straighten the room, keeping one eye on his guests.

By the time the discreet knock came at the door, the sky had turned a tentative shade of gray and the dawn call to prayer was echoing across the city. York stood to one side of the door, holding a bamboo staff. “Who is it?”

“Carlson.”

York opened the door. A fresh-faced young man in round glasses and white coveralls pushed a rolling laundry hamper into the room. “Where’s the dirty clothes?” he asked.

Together they loaded the two struggling bodies into the hamper and threw the remains of York’s top sheet over them.

 

“What should I do with them?”

 

“Take them a mile or two into the desert and dump them. I expect they’ll be able to untie each other eventually.”

 

“Do you need a lift anywhere?”

 

“We’ll chance it later, once we’ve got a new hired car.”

 

“Right. Here’s the binoculars you wanted and a map to the safe house. You’ll have your translator along to help with the addresses?”

 

York nodded. “Thanks.”

 

“Good luck. Call if you need anything.”

 

Carlson, whistling softly to himself, wheeled the hamper into the hall. York called Nadya’s room again and told her to start packing.

 

#

 

That afternoon, York spread a dozen full-color brochures across Minister Rashid’s desk. Bright red and silver Kenworth T800 dump trucks, phosphorescent yellow John Deere excavators and Link Belt HTC-series cranes. Rashid and four of his top-level supervisors stood around the table with longing in their eyes. If York had brought pinup photos of American starlets, he could not have more fully engaged their attention.

He was exhausted, as Nadya must have been. After getting the car exchanged and moving house, they’d found a flea market where York had bought shabby, locally made work clothes, sandals, a bandana, and a turban, which Nadya had reluctantly agreed to tie for him. Though the clothes had been washed, the perfume of the detergent barely masked the odor of years of sweat and corrosive sunlight. York hid them under the front seat of the car and then they bolted down a meal from a market stall before driving to the dam site.

“With an expedited order,” York said, “we could deliver them in Alexandria in three weeks.”

One of the supervisors actually licked his lips.

“And now,” York said, “if I may, I’d like to leave these with you and do some more investigating on the site.”

Nadya stifled a yawn as she translated Rashid’s reply. “Of course. Let me call my driver.”

“Is it all right if we take our own car?” York said. “I don’t want to be a bother.”

“It is no bother.”

York offered his best smile. “I really would prefer to drive myself.”

Rashid inclined his head. “Mind your tires,” he said. “The roads are treacherous.”

#

They took the ferry and then York drove to the edge of the pit, and then past it, onto a ridge where massive boulders hid them from the view of the offices on the west bank and the workers on the East.

At one point Nadya said, “Please be careful. I don’t want to have to explain a second wrecked car.” Other than that she was silent. The fatigue that dragged at both of them only added to the strain.

York parked and handed Nadya the keys. “Go to the safe house and get some sleep. I won’t have an easy way to call you, so let’s set a rendezvous at the Arab Contractor’s Club at midnight. If I’m not there, try again at six a.m. If I miss that one too, get back to Cairo somehow and give Giles a full report.”

He climbed over the seat and began to change into the work clothes.

“You’re being quite ridiculous,” Nadya said. “What do you hope to accomplish by this, other than blowing your cover at the very least, and most likely getting yourself killed? You don’t speak the language, you can’t pass for Egyptian. This is a complete fool’s errand.”

“I’ve never claimed it was anything else,” York said. “Bisri is our only lead. You can’t follow him. I can at least try.”

“Samson in the temple. If a man can’t get his way, he must pull everything down around him.”

“What would you have me do?”

“Admit defeat. Retire from the battlefield with your life.”

“Politics is a good career choice for you,” York said. “Can you help me with this turban?”

She sighed. “Lean forward.”

York was sure she tied it more tightly than was strictly necessary. He would probably end up with a headache before the night was out, if his head was still attached to his body.

He took a long drink from a canteen of filtered water, then got out and squatted in the sand, legs spread, knees high, and began to rub dirt on his face.

Nadya watched him from the car. “Remarkable. Where did you learn to sit like that? I could have mistaken you for an Arab.”

“I pay attention,” York said. “How do you say ‘deaf’ in Arabic?”

“‘Atrash,” she said. “Why?”

“Thinking ahead. You should go now.”

“Listen,” she said. “I’m sorry for…I’m sorry this hasn’t gone well.”

“It rarely does. It’s not your fault. You’ve done really well, and I apologize for underestimating you.”

“Listen to us,” she said with false heartiness. “Talking as if we’ll never see each other again. I’ll see you at midnight.”

“Insha’Allah,” York said. He raised his hand as she drove away.

#

He got out the binoculars and walked downhill to a position he’d noted earlier. It was out of the sight lines of the construction offices, partly shaded, and had a view down into the pit. He checked his watch, a cheap Timex with a plain leather band. Twelve past four. The temperature had to be at least 120, and it was three hours until nightfall, six hours until the end of Bisri’s shift.

He focused the binoculars on the area in front of the tunnels. For a long time the movements of the workers appeared random, like the crowds at a Macy’s Thanksgiving Sale. Then, gradually, he began to make sense of it. These men directed the fleets of machinery, and these shoveled the sharp-edged rock fragments out of the roadway where they had spilled on their way from the excavator to the back of the dump truck. These refilled the barrels of drinking water and these tended the machines, changing tires and fan belts, adding oil to crankcases and water to the radiators. A few in sunglasses and billed caps carried a roll of blueprints or a stadia rod or a walkie-talkie.

The noise was incessant, a physical assault. The whine of diesel motors that constantly rose and fell in pitch, the grinding of gears, the crash of metal against rock, the thud of rock on metal, the screaming voices, the clatter of jackhammers, the warning klaxons and truck horns. It was muted somewhat where York lay, doubtless deafening in the enclosed walls of the pit.

As York watched, a cement mixer waddled down the uneven road into the thick of it, the asphalt under its tires rutted and buckled from the relentless heat and constant use. It parked in front of the second tunnel from the left. A man emerged from the depths of the tunnel with a wheelbarrow and filled it with wet concrete from the spout. It was not Bisri, but it was almost certainly one of his crew.

York hid the binoculars under some rubble and put his head on his folded arms. He pushed the noise away with an effort of will and instructed himself to sleep until 7:00.

#

He awoke hungry, thirsty, and depressed. In the twilight, the whole venture seemed both impossible and pointless. The noise, if anything, was louder than before, and the glare of the sun had been replaced by stark white light emanating from banks of mercury vapor lamps, like the ones at baseball games in the States.

On assignment in Benares, York had listened to a Hindu sannyasi explain the mortification of the flesh, and he had understood the concept immediately on an emotional level. He thought of that now as he got to his feet, welcoming the hollow pain in his stomach and the ache in his stiffened muscles, defying them to slow him down.

He worked his way downward, at first hiding when trucks appeared, then, as the traffic increased, walking alongside them. Sometimes voices called to him and he ignored them.

In the pit, the clanging and roaring was a Pentacostal’s soundtrack of Hell. The sweetish, metallic stink of poorly combusted diesel blanketed the smells of sweat and cologne and burning rubber. The faces of the men around him looked like death masks, white powdery dust clinging to the sheen of perspiration. He tied his bandana over the lower half of his face as some of the other man had, and for a minute or two his breathing came more easily.

He moved slowly toward the tunnels, pausing from time to time to join in the work, lending his weight to three or four other men pulling on a line, spelling a man on a jackhammer. Once some sort of supervisor grabbed him by the arm and shouted at him angrily, pointing him in the direction of a stalled tractor, and York nodded and pretended to understand.

At ten o’clock a steam whistle blew and work came to an abrupt halt. Men climbed out of truck cabs or threw down their shovels where they stood and began to move along the road toward the open air, as the long column of their replacements passed them on their left.

York squatted near the entrance of the second tunnel and held his head in his hands. The heat alone had been enough to exhaust him within minutes. He had forced himself to dip tin cups of water from the barrels, despite its oily smell and texture, and drink it down. His intestines would probably pay, eventually; the alternative was worse in the short term.

He heard voices in the tunnel behind him and then a loud, heartfelt laugh that he recognized as Bisri’s. He kept his head down as the crew passed and then slowly got to his feet and followed at a few meters’ distance. By the time they were climbing the road, other men had filled the space between them and York had confirmed, from a glimpse of his profile, Bisri’s presence. As he watched, Bisri put a hand to his stomach, as if he felt a pang of indigestion.

Hunger, thirst, and fatigue had left York light-headed. He was taking too much pleasure, he knew, in this minor success. For the moment, though, he was in control, with a clear, defined task in front of him, and grateful for it.

At the river they stood in docile formation, waiting for a landing craft to ferry them across. One boat docked as soon as the previous boat left, taking a hundred or so workers at a time. York was impressed by their patience and lack of aggression.

As the crowd ahead of him dwindled, he shuffled closer to Bisri for fear of being left behind. He kept his eyes unfocused, and when the man next to him tried to engage him in conversation, he pointed to his ear, shook his head, and said, “‘Atrash.”

Mosquitoes swarmed at the edge of the water. The workers around him were indifferent to them, so York resisted the urge to swat, casually wiping his face when he felt one bite his cheek. He tried not to think about malaria or, worse, dengue. Bonebreak fever, they called it at the Benares station, because of the ache in the joints and the severity of the chills.

Finally they surged onto a boat. For as long as it took to get on board, he stayed within arm’s reach of Bisri, then slowly edged away. Luck put him near the railing. Once they were moving, his sweat turned cool in the breeze and the mosquitoes dissipated.

The stars were so thick in the sky that they seemed to be in layers. The voices of the men and the throbbing of the engines and the splashing of the wake were curiously soothing as they echoed across the water. They were the sounds of completion, of imminent food and rest, the furthest point from the next day’s work. For a moment York wished he were one of them, that the rest of his night were going to be that simple.

A flatbed truck waited for them on the far side. The only thing that kept the men from falling out was a rough sisal rope wound through stakes along the sides. York allowed himself to be pushed into the center, surrounded by the reek and body heat of the men. He breathed through his mouth and let his body sway with the motion as the truck ground its way uphill toward the housing estate.

The truck made three stops inside the compound, and Bisri got off at the last one, along with York and the thirty-odd remaining men. They moved as one toward a nearby souk where crude food stalls faced into a courtyard with tables and chairs. York got on line at a stall some distance from the one where Bisri stood, and he saw Bisri touch his stomach again, apparently unconsciously.

York decided that ordering food was less risky than sitting at a table without eating. He was also starved. When his turn came he said, “Falafel,” and laid down a pound note. The man asked him something and York said, “Aiwa,” yes, which satisfied him. He slapped down a few piasters in change and handed York a small newspaper-wrapped bundle and a bottle of Pepsi.

In the darkest corner of the square, he found a chair that faced into the courtyard. He was in operations mode. He was a set of receptors and alarms, scanning his surroundings, reviewing data, absorbing everything and emitting nothing. Some of those receptors noted that the falafel was hot and delicious. The passage of time was irrelevant as long as he had his target in view and he himself was not attracting attention.

With three shifts working around the clock, time had little meaning in any case. Here in the middle of the night, men roamed the streets, arguing and laughing, and an impromptu soccer game had started in the next block. The lines at the food stalls stayed constant and the streets were brightly lit throughout the night.

Someone brought another round of Pepsis to Bisri’s table. The crew had settled in, so York risked a quick trip to the row of public toilets on the other side of the square. Each stall contained a plywood seat with a hole and a bucket underneath. Nadya had explained the system to him. Several times a day a truck, euphemistically called the “honey wagon,” came around to a trapdoor in the back to empty the bucket and pour a layer of disinfectant in the bottom. The honey wagon workers were the untouchables of the Arab world, and every village had its legend of the day the train collided with the honey wagon. This particular honey bucket had not been emptied recently and the sharp chemical tang of the disinfectant was losing the battle with the reek of human waste and the swarming flies.

When he opened the door of the stall, Bisri was no longer at his table.

 

Fighting panic, York glanced to his right. There were twenty or thirty men walking away, several of whom might have been Bisri. He turned to his left and nearly stumbled into Bisri himself as he emerged from the next stall.

 

York looked down and mumbled, “Ana assif.”

 

“Malesh,” Bisri said.

 

York returned to his table. Bisri had looked him directly in the face for some fraction of a second. Even if he hadn’t recognized York from the night before—and the car had been dark, their contact brief, the circumstances entirely different—he might have sensed something off in York’s disguise. At the very least, he had now imprinted York’s appearance and would be more likely to notice him in a crowd.

 

With more resources, York would have pulled out and put another operative in play. He had only Nadya, who was useless in the village. The assignment teetered on the edge of failure and York was not yet ready to let it go.

 

He considered losing the turban, but his American haircut would stand out a mile away. Although he had enough of a tan to go shirtless, he’d noticed none of the other men did, no matter how high the temperature, and he suspected some sort of cultural prohibition.

 

So when Bisri’s crew at last stood up, York gave them a head start and then followed.

 

The object was to be inconspicuous, which meant not hurrying, attaching himself to first one clump of strangers and then another, always keeping people between himself and Bisri. One by one, other members of the group broke off, sometimes embracing one or two of the others before unlocking a plywood apartment door. Occasionally one of the doors would be open as York passed, and he saw that the insides were all the same—bare plywood floor, four metal cots along one wall, a single light bulb in the ceiling, an enameled pitcher and basin for washing up.

 

Finally Bisri, after several hugs and handshakes, went into one of the rooms. York immediately turned into a side street and squatted down with his back against a wall. Bisri’s door was just visible past the corner of the building across the street.

 

He glanced at his watch. It was one-thirty, long past his rendezvous with Nadya. He had kept his sense of direction, if little else. He knew that turning left onto the street that had brought him here would eventually take him to the main paved road, where a right would get him to the Arab Contractor’s Club. The streets were marked with stenciled icons—a camel, a palm tree, a pyramid, a dog’s head—on the corners of the buildings, with numbers below for the more literate workers. The colors of the spray paint changed every ten blocks. Bisri’s building was at the corner of a green cobra and a black shepherd’s crook.

 

The challenge at this point was to stay awake. Soldiers patrolled the streets regularly, and York would not survive an interrogation with his fifteen words of Arabic. He took one sandal off and saw that it had worn a raw patch on top of his foot. Sooner or later that was going to be painful.

He pretended to tinker with the sandal for a few minutes, then a wave of fatigue hit him. He had accomplished enough for one day. He had tracked Bisri to his lair and could find him again if he needed to. Clearly nothing else was going to happen tonight.

He put the sandal on and got to his feet. The muscles in his legs tightened in pain. He had to brace himself against the plywood behind him and stretch. When he looked up, two men were standing outside Bisri’s door.

York froze.

Bisri opened the door and glanced down the street in both directions. If he registered York’s presence, he didn’t show it. He locked up his room, put his arms over the shoulders of the two men, and they walked away together.

Now that York had seen the raw wound on his foot, it cried out for attention. He tried to conjure the image of an unselfconscious walk, focusing on the mechanics of moving among the other men on the street. The crowds thinned, and then, abruptly, the official mass-produced order of the estate gave out and the ad-hoc shanties began. There were no more floodlights on poles, only campfires and moonlight. Dogs with patchy fur and prominent ribs roamed purposefully between the huts. A scrawny old man and two black-swaddled older women, one of them with a baby in her arms, sat in the dirt with outstretched hands. A six-year-old boy with one eye leaking pus tugged at York’s clothing, crying, “Baksheesh, baksheesh!”

Even as he felt exposed and vulnerable, York’s excitement was rising. Bisri had to be close to his destination, if only because the possibilities were nearly exhausted. Time slowed as York’s sympathetic nervous system went into overdrive. He heard the sand crunch under the feet of the man next to him and smelled the goat meat roasting a hundred meters away. The colors and shapes around him became vectors and he tracked the subtle changes in their trajectories without conscious thought.

Bisri and the two others turned between two of the huts. York stopped, pretended to adjust his shoe again, then slowly walked past where they’d turned and glanced casually after them.

They had vanished.

York doubled back. The hut on his right was built from empty fruit crates and roofed with a sheet of clear plastic. On his left was an improvised pup tent made of bedsheets. He passed a refrigerator-sized cardboard box lying on its side, a lean-to made of scrap wood, another of corrugated aluminum. The inhabitants had no obvious reason to be there other than proximity to the comparative wealth of the workers. There was no sight or sound of Bisri or his men.

The alley abruptly emptied into desert and York realized, too late, that he had been deceived. He spun around to see Bisri standing in front of him with folded arms.

“Hello, CIA,” Bisri said.

In the flickering light of a burning torch, York saw one of Bisri’s men a few meters to his left, the other closing on his right. The flames made a rattling noise in the desert wind.

“You must think us very stupid,” Bisri said. “With your sad costume and your dirty face. Did you think I would not know you as soon as I came out of the tunnel and saw you sitting there in your pale skin and foolish turban?”

“I’m here to help you,” York said calmly. “We’re on the same side.”

“We don’t want your help,” Bisri said. “Do you think us children? Savages? Trained monkeys, perhaps. We are quite capable, you see.”

York turned again as another shape moved toward him out of the darkness. It was a small man, dressed completely in black. Still in the shadows, the man stopped, crouched slightly, and pulled his arms into his chest. York couldn’t see his face, but he knew the art that underlay the movement.

It was Chang, head of security for Dr. Helios.

#

York kicked off his sandals and felt the sand warm his feet. He pulled off his turban and tossed it after the sandals. Then he loosened his shoulders and began to circle to his left. Chang shadowed him, maintaining his distance, edging into the light. He moved with the grace and restraint and lethal threat of the tiger York had once encountered in the Burmese jungle. The tiger had stalked away into the undergrowth; he would not be so lucky with Chang. He could read nothing in Chang’s expression, no curiosity or amusement or swagger.

York knew he was no match for Chang, and the longer he hesitated, the more advantage he gave up. He moved closer and Chang did the same, leaving them four meters apart, still circling. This was no time, York, decided, for fair play. He kicked sand directly at Chang’s eyes with his right foot and pushed himself forward with the other, taking two running steps and throwing a flying kick at the side of Chang’s knee.

What happened next came so fast that he never saw it. Something hit him in the solar plexus, in the jaw below his left ear, in the throat, in the right temple, and in the upper chest, with no perceptible interval between the blows. One moment he was in the air, the next he lay battered on the ground, unable to breathe, half-blind and paralyzed by pain.

It took all his strength to suck air into his collapsed lungs, and he paid an agonizing price for every cubic centimeter. His brain was trying to shut down and he fought to stay conscious, to focus his eyes. He blinked tears away and dimly saw Chang with a hand on Bisri’s shoulder, giving him what looked like a sheaf of bills.

After that he blacked out briefly, and came to as he felt himself lifted by the arms and legs and dragged across the sand. The weight of his own body, hanging from his shoulders and hips, seemed to tear fresh wounds in his chest and groin. Then they were swinging him, and he was weightless for a long second before he landed hard in the back of a Land Rover, his head bouncing off the metal floor and the darkness closing in again.

He would have remained unconscious if he could, but the Rover was moving fast, hitting rocks and potholes that lifted him off the floor and then flung him into it again and again. Every breath was a difficult choice between asphyxiation and agony. The inside of his head was trying to push its way out through his skull and his stomach lurched with every bump.

When the Rover finally skidded to a stop, he smelled water and knew they were close to the river. Sparks winked on and off like fireflies and a dark fog filled the back of the Rover. He suspected that neither the fog nor the fireflies were real. He quickly lost all sense of how long the Rover had been stopped.

Suddenly the tailgate flew open and hands reached for him. The hallucinations, he was sure, were intensifying, because the men who dragged him out and tied him to a stretcher wore the white linen robes of ancient Egyptians. They had headbands made of gold fabric and they had lined their eyes with kohl and drawn two concentric circles around their right eyes. The eyes themselves were glazed, as if they were drugged. Some of them carried metal rods with a glowing crystal in one end. He couldn’t tell how many there were because they all looked the same.

The Rover was parked at some sort of secondary dock. There was a wooden shack and there were at least two other Rovers standing nearby, but no other people except the weird costumed men. They carried York onto a motor launch by the light of their rods and laid his stretcher lengthwise across the center seats. The engine, which had been gurgling quietly, roared to life and they began to race across the water. York’s stomach heaved. He kept from vomiting, less out of concern for his dignity than from fear that he might strangle.

As soon as they hit full speed they slowed again, and the launch made a sharp turn that brought them to rest against the hull of a larger ship. Hands reached down and the men in the launch passed him up. York found himself dragged onto a teak deck and left there, staring up at the night sky. He tried to get up on one elbow and his arm did no more than flop twice, like a drowning fish.

A man towered over him. Helios. He was in costume as well, a long white robe and a white pharaoh’s headdress that fanned out to his shoulders. Barking mad, York thought.

“Take him below,” Helios said in English. “Put him in the stateroom next to the foreign girl.”

So they have Nadya too, he thought. He was puzzled that Helios would call her foreign, but it was no crazier than his costume, or his speaking English, or anything else York had witnessed in the last few minutes.

They picked up his stretcher and carried him head first down a companionway. He cried out involuntarily as the blood rushed to his head, lighting it up with explosions of pain. The corridor had a high ceiling and bright crystal-shaped light fixtures like the ones that the men on the launch carried. The stateroom doors were marked with gold hieroglyphs. A door marked with the eye of Horus opened and they took him inside and dumped him onto a bunk. Even as they left the room and turned the key in the lock, the engines engaged and the ship began to move.

#

He drifted off for a while and was more lucid when he returned. He had a concussion, he realized, and as he took a slow and painful inventory, he added two cracked ribs, a swollen larynx, and a bad bruise along his jaw line. Nothing disabling.

He sat up and held on to the wall until the vertigo largely receded. Extrapolating from the size of his stateroom, he guessed that it was a big ship, probably sixty feet or more. Still holding the wall, he got to his feet and had to wait again for his vision to clear. He saw an empty closet, a sink with hot and cold water, and the bed. The walls were mahogany panels finished with a pale wash. At the foot of the bed was a porthole that he was able to open. It was barely big enough to put his hand through, and there was nothing to see but the darkness of the night and the water and the desert. Still, the fresh air helped his head.

Something thumped next door, in what he assumed was Nadya’s cabin. He closed the porthole to hear better, and made out voices, low and indistinct. He put his ear against the wall and recognized a deep, rumbling cadence that could only belong to Helios, though he couldn’t distinguish the words.

There was a scream and a woman’s voice said, “You bastard! Don’t—”

The sound of a blow cut her off.

It wasn’t Nadya’s voice.

It was Melody’s.

#

Sounds of a struggle ended in another strangled cry, followed by the sickening rhythm of the bed pounding against the cabin wall.

York tried to cry out, but his throat was too damaged to do more than croak. He pounded on the wall with both fists, then backed away and threw himself against it with what strength he had. The room went dim and his head throbbed, but he was demented with rage and barely noticed. He hurled himself at the wall again, and as he staggered back, the stateroom door slid back and Chang stepped inside. York attacked him with wild fury and Chang, almost tenderly, tapped him on the point of his chin with the heel of his hand. York’s legs melted and he was unconscious before he hit the floor.

#

When he came to again, his left hand was cuffed to the bed frame. Bright sunlight drilled through the porthole. His head seemed to swell and collapse with each hammer stroke of his pulse, but otherwise he didn’t feel significantly worse than before. Not physically, anyway.

It was obvious, in retrospect, what had happened. Helios’s men had been in the Buick that followed him from the airport. They’d watched his hotel and seen him with Melody that night. They must have taken her as soon as she left the next morning.

Of all the failures that had plagued this wretched mission from the start, this was the one he could not forgive. Everything that had happened to Melody since she was captured was his fault.

When he tried to turn onto his left side, his cracked ribs objected. He managed to get onto his other side and rest his head on his hand.

And what was the mission? The destruction of something that would benefit millions of people, for no other reason than the politics of those who were footing the bill.

Stop it, he told himself. It was a train of thought he had scrupulously avoided for years. It led to questions he was not willing to ask and answers he might not be able to live with.

Eventually he dozed for an hour or two, and then a change in the drumming of the engines woke him. He felt the ship come about and heard the splash of an anchor as the engines shut down.

The door slid open and five men in golden headbands came in. Four of them held his arms and legs as the fifth unlocked the handcuff from the bed and attached it to York’s free hand. They shackled his ankles and pulled him onto his feet. He didn’t want to give voice to his pain, and he did it anyway.

They walked him up the companionway ladder and he stopped on the deck, stunned by what loomed in front of him. Less than fifty meters from where he stood, at the end of a narrow, sandy beach, three massive, perpendicular walls had been carved out of the yellow mountainside of the west bank. In the space they defined sat four stone giants, sixty feet tall, the second one missing his upper torso. The three remaining heads showed the pharaoh Ramses II at three stages of his life, from teenage prince to a mature king with jutting oblong beard and long, flowing headdress.

York had seen photographs of the Abu Simbel temple, but nothing had prepared him for the sheer strangeness of it, dozens of miles from anywhere, stark and majestic, a towering monument to one man’s unrestrained egotism.

A hundred and fifty meters downstream stood a second, smaller complex, partly obscured by a crane and piles of steel girders. Why would Helios bring him here, where the government was working to salvage the temples? The site was supposed to be off limits. And yet the white-robed crewmen were prodding and pulling him toward the starboard rail, clearly intending to put ashore.

They held him by the armpits as he climbed down toward the launch, his hands useless in the cuffs behind his back. As he stepped into the boat, he saw Nadya already settled in the middle row of seats, hands also cuffed behind her, one of the crewmen with a protective grip on her shoulder.

York sat opposite her and felt a heavy hand on his own shoulder. “So they got you, too,” he said.

“The safe house, it appears, was not so safe.”

“Did they hurt you?”

“Only my dignity.”

He couldn’t stop thinking about Melody. She was not on the launch, nor was Helios, and apparently neither of them was coming. One of the crewmen fired up the engine and they began to ease away from the yacht. He wondered if Helios had killed her, wondered if it would be better for her if he had.

He forced himself to think of something else, to keep the anger from taking him over. “I thought,” York said, “this place was closed down.”

“The company that has the contract to move the temples,” Nadya said, “is owned by Helios Oil.”

Something was off in Nadya’s voice. “How did you know that?”

Before she could answer, the man with his hand on York’s shoulder said, in accented English, “No talking.”

They covered the distance to shore in moments, and the crewmen hustled them over the bow onto dry land. The morning sun had already heated the sand to the point that it burned York’s bare feet.

The crewmen, he noticed, were armed only with wooden crooks. He counted five of them and was wondering how far a surprise attack might get him when the man behind him, as if reading his thoughts, shoved him hard enough to make him lose his balance and fall on his face in the dirt.

 

“No tricks,” the man said, yanking York onto his feet by his armpits and giving him another, less violent shove. “Just walk.” The accent, York thought, might be Greek.

 

Around the legs of the seated pharaohs were smaller carved figures of women and children. The broken pieces of the ruined statue lay in the dirt by its feet, presided over by a long-billed stone bird. Heavy-duty power cables, covered with a thin layer of sand, snaked in front of the temple and through the twenty-foot high rectangular opening that led inside. From somewhere upstream came the distant hum of a generator.

 

The high ceiling of the first chamber was supported by eight more statues of Ramses, four on each side. Helios had trained spotlights on each of them, and laid Oriental carpet on the floor. The ancient and modern were so thoroughly mixed that they could have been in the lobby of the Nile Hilton.

 

The chamber was sixty feet long and nearly that wide. At the far end were three doorways. Through the center opening York glimpsed a second, smaller chamber with square pillars. Helios’s men pushed him through the third of the doors into a long, narrow room with four animal cages of wide steel mesh along one wall. The cages were cubical, two meters on a side, and each held a thin, bare mattress and a honey bucket. A single floodlight on the low ceiling added to the stark effect.

 

They led York to the farthest cage, and he fought back then, hopelessly. They pinned him to the dank floor of the chamber, removed his handcuffs and shackles, and threw him headfirst into the cage like a sack of grain. The cage door was bolted and padlocked before he could get to his hands and knees. He fell onto the mattress and watched as they unshackled Nadya and shoved her into the cage nearest the door and farthest from York. One of the men sat on a wooden bench against the opposite wall and the other four left.

 

“Nadya?” York said. “Are you all right?”

 

“No talking,” the guard said, and got up to poke York viciously in the kidney with the end of his crook. York curled in a fetal position, eyes running with pain, and lay still until the man moved away.

 

#

 

The room smelled of damp and the sweet, ancient musk of decay. And, of course, the disinfectant in the buckets. He was getting a bit ripe himself, he noticed. His bare feet were cold to the point of discomfort, the air was motionless and oppressive. His muscles tensed as he fought off a moment of claustrophobia.

He distracted himself by examining the cage. He spent thirty minutes searching for a weak spot, any kind of loophole that Helios might have left open, and found nothing. The cages were designed to hold wild dogs, chimpanzees, animals vastly stronger and more stubborn than humans. He would not get out that way.

The fact that he and Nadya were still alive meant that Helios wanted something from him, information most likely. Once Helios had it, or determined that he wasn’t going to get it, they would both be disposable. As to Melody, he couldn’t bear to think about her.

Funny, York thought, that at the end of the worst debacle of his career he should suddenly decide that he wanted to live after all. If only to get revenge on Helios.

#

He woke to the shaking of his cage. Three men, indistinguishable from the others, had arrived with food. While two of them prodded him toward the back of the cage with their crooks, another unlocked the door long enough to set down a piece of flatbread and an enameled cup of beer. They delivered the same thing to Nadya, changed the guard, and left.

The beer was thick and cloudy, unlike any he’d seen before. The bread had coriander seeds and bits of date in it. York guessed that the food, like the costumes and the setting, was some kind of throwback to ancient times. He saw no point in not eating and drinking; if they wanted to poison or drug him, they had plenty of other ways to do it.

Afterward he used the bucket and slept again.

#

The next time they woke him, he felt stronger, more alert. One of the guards ordered him, again in accented English, to face away from the cage door while they cuffed his hands. They pulled him out and shackled his legs again. The only opportunity York saw was for another beating, so he remained passive as they sent him stumbling toward the exit.

As he approached Nadya’s cage, he gave her a wink that he hoped did not look like a nervous tic. They’d taken her scarf and glasses and shoes. She looked exhausted and dirty, but no worse than that. She offered York a vague smile of encouragement.

From the outer chamber they took him deeper into the mountainside. The second chamber was smaller than the first and less ornate. York had read somewhere that this was the standard design of Egyptian tombs; like the inside of a pyramid, everything became smaller as you approached the inner chamber.

A narrow hallway after the second chamber led to more rooms. Along a straight line from the doorway to the outside was the entrance to the final chamber. The guards pushed him through and then immediately beat him to the floor with their crooks.

As he went down, York saw a low-ceilinged room five meters square. A stone bench ran along the back wall with four figures seated on it. Three of them were stone representations of either pharaohs or gods, if there was a difference. The fourth was Helios.

York peered carefully to his left. Two of the guards had folded themselves into a position of supplication, sitting on their heels with their foreheads to the Oriental carpet on the floor, arms stretched in front of them like Moslems at prayer. Two more were prostrated on the other side. The fifth man accounted for himself by whacking York with his crook and snarling, “Avert your eyes, dog.”

Defiance would gain him nothing at this point. York assumed the same position as the guards, except that his cuffed arms had to remain behind his back. He stared into the wine-colored carpet.

“This much we know,” Helios said. “Your name is not John York. You work for the CIA. You brought a briefcase into this country that we believe contains a great deal of cash.”

“You want to destroy the High Dam,” York said. His voice was hoarse but functional. “We want the same thing.” The word “we” tasted like ashes in his mouth. In fact he was no longer certain that he did want the destruction of the dam, and he was positive that he did not want the same things that Helios did.

“How much money was in the briefcase?”

“One hundred thousand Egyptian pounds.”

Helios let out a small, contemptuous grunt. “And where is it?”

“In a safe deposit box in Cairo.”

Helios sighed. “So we would have to bring you along to get at it. Not worth the trouble.”

“The United States could be a powerful friend to you.” Again, his stomach turned at his own words. He pressed on from sheer inertia. “Why do you refuse our help?”

“Oh, I have taken a good deal of money from your government over the years. It’s your friendship that I don’t want. If the Cattle of Ra were known to be the Dogs of the CIA, we would lose all our standing in the Arab world. That’s how the man you sent to infiltrate us got his neck broken.”

“Our friendship can be discreet.”

“Discreet? Discreet? Do you know who Abdel Karim Kassem was?”

“He was the Communist strongman in Iraq. His own army overthrew him back in February.”

“He was not a Communist. He was dearly loved by his people. The CIA planned and executed the coup because he wouldn’t do their bidding. You dare talk to me of discretion? They put on a show trial and shot him on Iraqi national television. Do you call that discreet?”

“The CIA had nothing to do with that.” The response was automatic. York had heard rumors; there were always rumors.

“I don’t know if you’re merely a liar, or truly are as naïve as you claim. Did you then have nothing to do with the Bay of Pigs? With the overthrow of Árbenz in Guatamala? With the coup in Iran in fifty-three? With the violence in the Congo right now?”

York didn’t know how to respond. Despite the source, they were reasonable questions. Did he really believe the denials that the agency routinely made? And if not, what about the acts themselves? Were these, in fact, the actions of a civilized nation?

“At least let Nadya go,” he said. “She works for the embassy, she has nothing to do with the CIA.”

“The audience is concluded,” Helios said.

“Wait. Will you tell me why? Why do you want to destroy the dam? What is it that you want?”

“Why should I tell a dead man? Take him away.”

#

When they threw York in his cage, they left the cuffs and shackles on. He suspected it was not a good sign. He had come down to the last few minutes of his life.

It was a life he had tried for years to throw away. He saw then where so much of his risk-taking had come from, how deeply his contempt for his own mortality ran, and how inextricable that was from the work he’d been doing.

Too little, he thought. Too late.

When Chang appeared, wearing a holstered pistol and trailing five guards, it was almost a relief.

Almost.

Standing in front of York’s cage, Chang said, “I respect your bravery, if not your skill. For this reason I will kill you quickly, with a single bullet to the skull. The same for the woman.”

“What about Melody?” York said.

“When Helios is done with her, I will see that she also dies quickly.”

Chang gestured, and a guard unlocked Nadya’s cage. She came out meekly, then, as the guard reached for her hands, she bolted for the door. Apparently someone was waiting on the other side, because she immediately flew backwards into the room, where the first guard threw her to the floor, knelt on her back, and cuffed her wrists. A second guard chained her feet.

York left his cage quietly and they walked out in single file, Chang leading, York and Nadya buffered by guards. As they came into the main chamber, York saw dust motes dancing in the spotlights above the statues and felt the shifting textures in the rug under his feet. It was as if he had never noticed before what an infinity of detail the world contained.

They walked out into the dying day, the long shadow of the temple coving the beach and half of the river. York had lost all track of time.

“What will you do with our bodies?” he asked Chang.

Chang slowed and turned his head halfway toward York. “The men will slit you open and put you in the river. The Nile catfish will take care of the rest.”

The walked to the edge of the beach. A puff of breeze came off the water, cool enough to make York shiver. Absurdly, he was embarrassed that Chang might think he was trembling in fear. Then he saw that Chang’s hands, held at waist level, had a slight tremor as well.

And then the breeze brought him something else, the faintest aroma of Balkan Sobranie cigarettes.

York looked at Chang and said, “Uzkoglaziy.”

Chang’s head snapped around, anger flickering and then dying in his eyes. “Very clever,” he said.

“No offense,” York said. It was a racial slur the ethnic Russian bigots used when they referred to Asians. “You’re KGB, aren’t you? You’re not even Chinese. Some sort of half-breed from the eastern provinces.”

Chang didn’t react.

“You’re not really working for Helios at all,” York said. “You’re a mole, supposed to keep an eye on Helios, maybe take him out if he gets too dangerous.”

Chang pulled out the pistol and said, “You have a very weird idea of how to keep from getting shot.” For an instant York thought Chang would use it right then, before any more damaging revelations could come out. Instead he waved it at the guards. “Back inside, now!”

The guards hesitated, looking at each other in confusion and fear.

“Imshi!” Chang shouted, and York saw how close the man was to coming apart.

The guards scrambled toward the temple.

“Where’s Helios?” York asked.

“He took the helicopter to Aswan. They’re going to blow up the retaining wall tonight.”

York flinched.

Nadya looked at Chang. “And you’re going to let him do it? Are you mad?”

“Whose side are you on?” York asked her.

“I might ask you the same thing,” Nadya said. “But first I want to hear from Chang.”

Chang looked embarrassed. “My superiors can’t decide. If I let Helios wreck the dam, it will prove my loyalty and I can get even closer to him. He has worse things planned, you see. They argued about it until it was too late.”

“Committees,” Nadya said.

“Helios’s guards all speak English,” York said. “Your cover is blown now.”

“Thanks to you.”

“Obviously you can kill me if you want. Or we can work together.”

Chang shook his head. “You really must think I’m crazy.”

“Nadya,” York said, “if that’s your name, why don’t you start by telling us who you work for?”

“How long have you known?” she said.

“I began to suspect something when you pulled that gun in the workers’ estate. But I don’t know what your loyalties are.”

“Egyptian secret service,” she said. “I report to Al Rayyes personally.”

“So you were going to stop me if I got close to succeeding,” York said.

“In that unlikely event, yes,” Nadya said coolly.

“What did you do to Mahmoud?”

“Oh, he was genuinely ill. Thanks to something we put in his food.”

“And you?” Chang said to York. “What do you bring to this? The last I heard, you were here to sabotage the dam yourself.”

“I had a change of heart.” The words made him think of his first meeting with Bisri.

“Because of the girl?” Chang asked.

“Partly. Helios is a monster.”

“He’s a monster that your country helped create.”

“After today I don’t know that I’ll still have a country. Where is she?”

“The girl? She’s here.”

“Is there another helicopter?”

“No,” Chang said. Then, reluctantly, he added, “There’s the boat.”

“How long will it take?” Nadya asked.

“Four hours, at top speed. If we’re lucky.”

“Get Melody,” York said, “and let’s get on the water.”

Chang looked at him curiously.

“You can kill me halfway to Aswan and throw me overboard,” York said. “But we’ll never get back the time we’re losing now. We can finish arguing once we’re underway.”

Chang shook his head, more in disbelief than disagreement.

“And bring the keys to these shackles,” York said, “in case you decide not to kill us.”

#

The first doorway off the main chamber led to another long room, this one fitted out with a European-style door. Chang unlocked it to reveal a facsimile of a hotel room with a double bed, nightstand, carpet, and lamp. Melody lay across the bed, drugged or asleep. She wore a cotton shift with bloodstains around the groin. Her hands were tied with a silken cord and her feet were chained. One eye was severely blackened. Her lips were swollen and split in two places. The room stank of sperm and blood.

“My God,” Nadya said.

Chang had removed York’s handcuffs, leaving the leg shackles in place. York knelt beside the bed and gently touched Melody’s shoulder. She jerked away without opening her eyes.

“Melody,” he said. “It’s York.”

She opened one eye. “You,” she said, with loathing. “What did you do to me?”

“I’m taking you out of here.”

“Bastard!” she yelled. “Don’t touch me!” She tried to strike him with her bound hands.

“Please,” he said. “We have to go. Everything is falling apart.”

She fought him when he tried to pick her up. “I can walk,” she said. She pushed herself to the edge of the bed, tried to stand, and fell on her knees. She began to cry. York scooped her up, looping her bound arms around his head. “Don’t!” she said.

“I’m not leaving you,” York said.

“Hurry,” Chang said. “These servants of his are brainwashed, but they’re starting to panic.”

They ran out to the beach, a shambling, painful motion for York and Nadya. Near the launch, a small knot of Helios’s servants had gathered, moving their crooks nervously. Chang waded into them, throwing them to the left and right as if emptying clothes out of a closet. In a few seconds the rest had lost their nerve and retreated to the temple.

York sat Melody in the center of the boat and then, as Chang and Nadya settled themselves, pushed the launch out into the river. Chang was fumbling with the controls and York took his place. The engine coughed and roared and York sent them skimming across the fifty meters of water to Helios’s yacht.

York got on board first and Chang handed Melody up to him. He started to carry her toward the companionway and she fought him, saying, “No! Don’t take me to that room again!”

“Okay,” York said. “Relax, it’s okay now.”

“No,” she said. “It’s not.”

He took her to the saloon and laid her on one of the leather-covered sofas. He tucked an afghan around her and untied her hands. The room was spectacular, with windows along both sides and a stunning view of Abu Simbel backlit by the setting sun. Cream-colored industrial carpet covered the floor and the cabinets and paneling were burnished teak. A bowl of green apples sat on the black marble dining table and a cabinet in the forward bulkhead held an expensive marine VHF radio.

“There’s blood on your robe,” he said. “He didn’t…cut you, did he?”

 

“No. He was just…brutal.”

 

Nadya stuck her head in. “I think Chang needs help.”

“Can you stay with Melody?”

She nodded and York ducked outside. He showed Chang how to winch the launch out of the water and secure it to the transom, where he noticed the name of the ship for the first time: Amon Ra. Sun god of the ancient Egyptians.

“I hope this means you can drive this thing,” Chang said.

“There’s nothing to it. Even millionaires can do it. But first, we need to get Nadya on the radio to the authorities.”

Chang considered briefly, then nodded. “Go ahead.”

“It would be a lot easier with these chains off.”

Chang tossed York a set of keys. “I’m not sure why I trust you. Maybe I think you’re a good man who ended up in the wrong job.”

York sat on the deck to strip off the leg irons. “I could say the same for you. Somehow I don’t quite feature you walking the Communist Party line.” He threw the chains over the side.

“Nor you working for the Colonial Imperialist Assassins.” Chang showed him a tight smile, then looked away. “I was relieved that I didn’t have to kill you. I’ve never executed anyone before.”

“But you’ve killed.”

“A few times. To protect my life. You?”

“Once. Like you, in self defense.”

“Was he Russian?”

“Burmese.”

“Ah. Well, that’s all right, then.”

In the saloon, York gave Nadya the keys and she removed Melody’s chains first. York pointed to the radio. “Can you work a VHF unit?”

“Yes.”

“Are you all right without your glasses?”

“I’m nearsighted. I’ll be fine.”

“Get hold of your people and the engineers at the dam, let them know there’s going to be a sabotage attempt tonight. But leave me out of it. I don’t want to attract any more attention to myself than absolutely necessary.”

“Yes,” she said. “I understand.”

York showed Chang how to work the anchor winch and then climbed the ladder to the bridge. He fired up the twin engines, slacked off the anchor chain, and shouted down to Chang to hoist it. As soon as the anchor was loose he headed downstream at full throttle.

Chang joined him and York explained the basics of the instruments. He gave Chang the wheel and moved to the hard plastic couch at the forward point of the bridge, feeling the night wind in his hair. York was a sailor, not a lover of motor yachts; still it was still a pleasure to be moving swiftly over water when he hadn’t expected to be alive at all.

He looked at Chang. “Earlier you said Helios had worse things planned. What’s his game? What’s he after?”

“Profit. After that, more profit. After that, still more profit. Some men want to rule the world. Helios wants to own it.”

“What does that have to do with the High Dam? The line he was spouting at al Gezira about obstructing his free passage on the Nile was nonsense. The original Aswan Dam did that sixty years ago.”

“The dam is only a means to an end, the same end your masters want. To ruin Nasser. Nasser and the Moslem Brotherhood have been at each other’s throats since the Revolution in fifty-two, and if the dam fails, the Brotherhood will take over.”

“How does that help Helios?”

“The Brotherhood hates Communism as much as you do. They believe in free enterprise as devoutly as they believe in Allah. They would be willing to take certain assets that Nasser nationalized and put them back in private hands.”

“Specifically?”

“Specifically the Suez Canal.”

“Are you serious?”

“Completely. There was nearly a world war over the canal in fifty-six when Nasser took it over. If Helios bought the canal from Egypt—and there’s every reason to believe the Brotherhood would sell it to him—he would control shipping between Asia and Europe. He would basically become a world power unto himself.”

“Isn’t that against the Brotherhood’s own self-interest?”

“This is why in the Soviet Union we abolished religion.”

Nadya appeared at the top of the ladder. “I got hold of security at the dam. They are evacuating the channel and bringing in the Army.”

“Good,” York said, and then felt a sudden chill in his stomach. “You left Melody alone,” he said.

“She was asleep. I’m sure she’s…”

“We never searched the ship,” he said, realizing it only as the words came out of his mouth.

He pushed past her and scrambled down the ladder. He couldn’t see in the tinted windows of the saloon. He ran to the door and threw it open.

A white robed figure, one of Helios’s men, looked up in surprise from the middle of the floor. He had barely raised his crook to defend himself when York charged him. All of his suppressed rage burst out and he straddled the man, throwing punch after punch until Melody screamed, “Stop it!”

He froze. Some measure of sanity gradually returned. The man was hurt, but not critically. York lifted him in a fireman’s carry, took him onto the deck, and threw him over the side. The man floundered, then began to swim, his head above water as he disappeared into the darkness. And if he hadn’t? York asked himself. If he’d started to drown, would you have gone back for him?

He stood at the railing and gripped it as if he meant to tear it loose. What was happening to him? Less than an hour ago he’d abandoned his career and thrown in with a pair of Communists. He’d lost his direction and his common sense, and now even his instincts were failing him. Worse, he’d begun to second guess himself.

Nadya touched his shoulder. “Are you all right?”

“Stay with Melody. Please. I’m going to search the rest of the ship.”

He checked the staterooms, the galley, the engine room, and finally came up the interior companionway that led into the saloon. Nadya sat on the couch, Melody on her lap, her face buried in Nadya’s shirt, weeping exhaustedly. Nadya looked at York and gave a slight shake of her head. York retreated.

Back on the bridge, Chang was smoking.

“That was what gave you away,” York said. “I smelled that Balkan tobacco on your clothes.”

“Being around Helios has made me careless. The man has virtually no sense of smell or taste. He barely feels pain. He’s not even particularly intelligent. He’s succeeded through sheer greed and a complete lack of compassion.”

“How to succeed in business,” York said.

“Marx said much the same thing.”

“Helios owns the company that’s supposed to move Abu Simbel. If he succeeds in destroying the dam, it won’t have to be moved. And I suppose the grateful Brotherhood will sell him the temple to go with his canal.”

“Exactly.”

“Did you ever consider killing him?”

“Many times. My superiors feel his murder could destabilize the entire Middle East.”

“You won’t interfere with my killing him?”

“If you do it, we can blame the CIA. I won’t stand in your way. But I don’t think you have a prayer.”

York felt the tidal wave of rage again, so powerful it left him dizzy, the murderous rage that had made Melody scream. “I’ll take my chances,” he said.

“Just so we understand each other,” Chang said. “Saving the dam is first priority for all of us. Then, to whatever extent we can, we help you.”

“Agreed. So you’re saying you don’t trust the Egyptian Army to stop Bisri.”

“No,” Chang said. “Do you?”

“No.”

Chang nodded and flicked the end of his cigarette toward the river. “Filthy habit,” he said. “I really should give it up.”

#

They were thirty minutes out of Aswan. Nadya was on the bridge, having promised Melody that she would come immediately if she called.

“They have checked the inventory of dynamite,” Nadya said, recapping her last radio exchange, “and everything looks correct. They have locked down the shed where they store it and surrounded it with guards. That would be the likely place for Bisri to get his explosives. So maybe we were in time.”

“Maybe,” York said. “Do they have Bisri yet?”

“Not yet.”

York suddenly saw Bisri getting down from the truck at the food souk, his right hand moving involuntarily to his waist.

“What if Bisri had a man on the explosives team?” York said. “They work in the same tunnels. One stick of dynamite here, another there. Over the space of a few months, no one would notice.”

“Where would he hide it?” Nadya asked.

The nervous mannerism had stopped, York was sure, after Bisri had disappeared into his apartment.

“It’s in his room,” York said.

“They checked and didn’t find anything. They have a man watching it.”

York had smelled dynamite. The nitroglycerin had an acidic odor and the filling smelled like sawdust. He would know it again.

“I want to see for myself,” York said.

“Even if he were to get the dynamite,” Nadya said, “the channel is deserted now, surrounded by guards on all sides. He would need a truck or car to carry that much explosive. How would he deliver it?”

“I don’t know,” York said. “But he’s thought of something.”

#

York sped across the Nile, alone in the launch in the darkness. He had left Nadya, Melody, and Chang on the east bank in the care of an Egyptian regiment. Chang had the flare gun from the Amon Ra, and had promised to signal if he caught sight of either Bisri or Helios.

Close to shore, York turned upstream and watched for the shack and the makeshift dock where Helios’s man had transferred him to the yacht. The weak searchlight on the launch penetrated no more than ten meters beyond the bow.

The shack jumped suddenly out of the darkness. To his relief he saw two Land Rovers parked there and no other sign of life. He passed the shack and gave himself an extra two hundred meters in case anyone was watching the dock. Then he drove the boat onto the beach. He found an old fashioned boat hook on board with a good, sharp point on it and jammed it into the sand and tied the boat’s painter to it. In the tool box under the middle seat of the launch, he found a pair of wire cutters and a big screwdriver, and he stuck both of them in the waistband of his pants.

The Rovers were unlocked, with no keys in their ignitions. The keys were probably in the shack, which was closed with a hasp and padlock. It was easier to hotwire the Rover, and in two minutes he was on his way.

The road was pitted and rocky, but easy enough to follow and free of turnoffs. He recognized the collection of shacks that ringed the workers’ estate as soon as it came into view, and he pointed the rover down the alley that led to Bisri’s quarters. It had only been a few blocks, he remembered, once the government housing began.

The streets were empty; York guessed some kind of curfew was in effect. He passed the shack made of crates and then the first of the plywood buildings, complete with green cobra stencil.

Three blocks later he saw a government Rover parked in the dirt street across from Bisri’s room. He pulled up next to it and saw a young soldier with a mustache and a bright smile. “Do you speak English?” York called to him.

The man shook his head. “La.”

“I have an important message from President Nasser. From Al Rayyes.” York set the handbrake and climbed down, leaving the Rover running. He walked around to the soldier’s door, opened it, and stunned the man with a quick chop to the neck. He pulled him out and finished him with a knee to the chin, then bundled him into the back of the government Rover and used the man’s own handcuffs to secure him to the frame.

The doors of the sleeping quarters were strictly for show. York splintered the wood around the lock and was inside in less than a minute.

The room smelled like raw wood and unwashed bodies. Below that, oddly, he detected the sweetish odor of gasoline, and finally, at the bottom, the chemical stink of nitro. He searched under the cheap, steel-frame beds, even though the Army must have been there before him. Under the fourth and final one he found a wooden trunk whose latch surrendered without a fight. Despite an oilcloth lining, there was nothing inside. Dirty clothes had been stuffed on either side of the trunk, and as York threw them aside the smells of petrol and nitro got stronger.

He shifted all the beds down until he could get at the plywood panel that the last bed rested on. The screws were loose in their holes and the panel easily lifted up and out.

The ground under the foundation of two-by-sixes had been hollowed out, and five waxed cardboard boxes were half-buried in the sand. Three of them held twenty sticks each of brown dynamite with Cyrillic characters printed on the side. The fourth held caps, wires, and a radio transmitter that was clearly intended as a detonator.

The fifth box, the largest, held a roll of dark brown rubberized canvas six feet long and a foot in diameter. York stared at it in puzzlement until he noticed the small outboard motor and the greasy five gallon can of gasoline tucked underneath. It was an inflatable boat, wrapped around a rigid transom to support the motor.

It seemed obvious now. Bisri had planned all along to come in by water rather than by land. He could take the explosives up to the lip of the retaining wall and blow a hole in it big enough to drown any hope of finishing the dam by the deadline.

York felt himself start to relax. With no dynamite, Bisri’s fangs were pulled. He began to carefully load the dynamite into the trunk, trying to decide if he should simply cart it away himself, or use the radio in the soldier’s Rover to find help.

He was nearly done when the lights went out.

The darkness was absolute. He felt his way carefully to the door. The street was dark too, as were the surrounding housing blocks.

York had not stayed alive this long by believing in accidents. He slid under the bed nearest the door and listened to the chug of his Land Rover as it idled in the street. He counted off a minute, then two, then three. Finally dark shapes moved against the lesser darkness of the doorway and a flashlight swept the room. Bisri cursed, the cadences unmistakable in any language, and then, as he found the exposed dynamite, he began to bark orders. Two men ran into the street while Bisri checked the room again with the flashlight.

York heard car doors open and shut, a tailgate fall open. A voice, probably the soldier’s, shouted, then broke off under the muffled rhythm of kicks and blows.

Bisri was focused on the dynamite, moving the last of it into the trunk with rustles and clunks. It was just possible, York thought, to slip into the street while Bisri was distracted.

Before he could act, the two men were back, jabbering excitedly. All York saw was their feet, practically dancing with nervous tension. He could imagine what they were saying—the handcuffed soldier, the second Rover—they had to know that York was nearby. Bisri shouted more orders and handed off the flashlight. Immediately one of them shone it under the farthest bed while the other man dashed outside again.

York eased out from under the bed, got his feet under him, and rushed for the door. The man with the flashlight yelled and lunged for him, barely missing. York launched himself through the door and landed painfully on his bare feet in the street. He skidded and then dug in, sprinting for the Rover, and he got twenty feet before he was tackled from behind. He barely had time to raise his arms protectively before the street rose up to smash him in his damaged ribs.

Fighting for breath, he kicked free and got up into a crouch, facing the man who tackled him. The street was nearly as dark as the room. Bisri and the other man were running toward him, Bisri with the flashlight now, vague shadows in the night, heard more than seen. York took out the man in front of him with a high sweeping kick and charged the other henchman with a berserker yell and windmilling arms. The man couldn’t decide whether to run or fight, and York took him down before he made up his mind.

In the meantime, Bisri came up from behind and landed a powerful blow with the flashlight to York’s right kidney. York gasped, started to turn. Bisri hit him again with the flashlight, this time in the ribs, and the pain was a white light that blinded him. The last blow was to the head, and the white light turned to darkness.

#

Even after he regained consciousness, as the first waves of an incoming tide of pain rolled across his body, he continued to lie in the street, knees drawn up to his broken chest.

My mission, he thought, was to blow up the dam. That was why I came to Egypt in the first place. All I have to do is lie here, and Bisri will do the job for me. I can take the credit, and go back to Washington, and everything will be the way it used to be.

Except that it wouldn’t. The things he’d admitted to himself could not be tucked safely back into the locked boxes in his head.

And it was not York that Bisri was doing the job for. It was Helios, and the thought of Helios was enough to make York open his eyes and slowly pull himself onto his hands and knees.

His stomach lurched and it took yet more willpower not to throw up. He carefully touched his forehead and his fingers came away wet and gritty. Bisri must have left him for dead. And Bisri was not far wrong.

A man, some bystander, stood beside him, apparently asking if he needed help. York ignored him. He crawled to the nearest plywood housing block and used the wall to pull himself upright, barely registering the bloody handprints he left behind.

The Rover he’d hotwired was gone. The second Rover was still there. He glanced in the back and saw that the soldier was dead. Helping himself along with both hands, he got into the driver’s seat. By the dome light he saw that the keys were gone and the microphone had been torn from the radio.

It was hopeless. Yet he staggered into Bisri’s room, searching for his wire cutters, getting to his knees to look under the nearest bed before he realized that they were still in the waistband of his pants.

He wandered back into the street and got onto the floor under the Rover’s steering column, where he passed out for a few seconds. When he came to, he groped at the harness of wires for a long time before he finally found the two red ones, stripped them, and twisted them together. He stripped the brown wire and touched it to the reds, forgetting that the car was still in gear and killing it instantly.

 

He set the brake, hands shaking now, put the gearshift in neutral, tried again. The wires sparked and the motor caught.

 

The car was running, but there was a dead man in back. This was going to be hard to explain.

 

He turned the car around in the narrow street. Steering was harder than he remembered; the machine had a perverse and independent will. In the first block, the Rover ran up against one of the plywood buildings and cut a long gash into the wood. York wrestled it back onto the road and nearly hit a man in a long beige galabiya and turban.

 

With his left hand, York grabbed himself by the hair and pulled his own head upright. The pain was like an electric shock. He pushed the accelerator down, feeling every ridge, every piece of gravel, every footprint in the road as it reverberated in his ribs and his kidney and his pounding head.

Twice on the way to the river he lost focus and drove off the road, barely managing to swerve back without getting mired in the loose sand. So many things could go wrong. Bisri might have taken the dynamite in a different direction. He might have found York’s launch and stolen or scuttled it. York hoped that he had. Then he could lie down and either sleep or die; he didn’t care which.

The loamy, fishy smell of the Nile brought him around. In his trance, he had driven the Rover straight into the water, far enough to kill the engine. He listened to the waves tap against the doors.

There was something important he had to do.

Helios. Bisri. Sixty sticks of dynamite.

He stepped out of the Rover into water up to his calves. In the floodlight that burned on the shack by the dock, his hands were stained dark brown with blood. They stuck to the side of the Rover as he steadied himself against it. “Forgive me,” he said to the dead man in back. He thought at first that the dead man had answered, but it was only another hallucination.

He stumbled down the beach. How far away had he left the boat? Too far. He couldn’t see it, couldn’t see the shore, could only see nauseating flashes of light from the river. Then he tripped over the line tied to the boathook and went sprawling in the sand.

He got onto his knees. He understood that the next few things had to happen in order. First, pull the boathook out and throw it in the boat. He had to rest after that. Then he pushed the boat into the river and collapsed rather than jumped into the bow, one leg dragging in the water. Hate to see the fish that bite that head off, said a voice in his head. He pulled his leg into the launch.

Sometime later he made his way painfully to the stern and, on the fourth try, started the motor, remembering just in time to turn the rudder so that he didn’t drive himself up on the bank again.

He saw lights across the river, at the trench where the Army was even now, he was sure, convincing themselves that the threat was over, wondering when they should pack it in and go back to work. It was like seeing his hometown football stadium on a winter’s night in high school, driving toward a circle of light brighter than the day, surrounded by nothingness, warm in the car with friends, the cold all around.

He felt the cold seep into his hands and feet as he shot across the water, and he knew he was running out of time.

From one minute to the next he would stare at the distant lights, expecting to see an eruption of smoke and flame any moment, and then he would lose himself in the rhythm of the hull slapping the water, only to start awake, not remembering where he was until the word came into his head again: Helios.

Closer now. He made out pontoon boats tied up along the east bank. Bisri’s boat, though, was dark as the Nile, dark as the night, virtually invisible. He drove the launch almost to the shore and then swung downstream, the motor buzzing like a thousand wasps. He switched on the feeble searchlight, wishing the pain would recede enough to let his head clear, if only for five minutes.

He was nearly to the channel. The sand banks had given way to pale granite, looming ten feet higher than the river. There was no sign of Bisri and he knew he should throttle back, but he was afraid of being late, of missing Bisri by seconds and watching his final failure explode in front of him.

Something shot past to starboard and it was a long second before he realized it was Bisri in his raft, that the launch had missed him by ten feet and sent him rocking in its wake. York throttled back and turned around. It was impossible to see Bisri, impossible to know what he was doing. But he would not have come this far without being ready to blow the dynamite as soon as he tied his raft to the rock wall.

York nosed the launch into the cliff until the paint scraped against stone, then gave it more gas, five knots, ten. He was so close to the rock wall that the slightest twitch would smash in the hull. York was sweating now, and when he wiped the sweat away his hands dripped with blood.

The spotlight picked Bisri out of the darkness a moment before the launch shot between the raft and the cliff wall. A single frozen image imprinted itself in York’s brain: Bisri crouched in the raft, reaching for the detonators.

York spun the launch around again. If he rammed the raft directly it could set off the blasting caps. He looked frantically around the floor of the launch and saw the boathook a few feet away. He grabbed it, came around the outside of the raft, and as he passed he cut the engine, stood, and threw the boathook at Bisri with every bit of strength he had left, the momentum hurling him against the side of the launch as it bobbed in its own wake.

At that moment a flare exploded overhead and for one despairing instant York thought it was the dynamite going off. Then he remembered something about a flare gun, a signal of some kind.

Helios. It meant Helios was here.

In the light of the flare he saw Bisri dancing on the water. It was a bizarre and impossible sight, and York realized that the boathook had missed Bisri and ripped a hole in the cheap fabric of the raft, that the raft was now spinning out of control and taking on water as it collapsed. A brown wave washed over the side and covered the bundles of dynamite, soaking the blasting caps and detonator, and still Bisri fought for balance, in water up to his ankles, then his knees. As the last of the raft disappeared, Bisri belly flopped into the river, too buoyant to go under. His head came up, his turban still, improbably, in place. As he dog paddled, he fixed York with a stare that managed to be both hostile and resigned.

York started his engine. He could easily run Bisri down with the launch; the propeller would turn him into chum for catfish. The idea had no appeal; Bisri was no longer a threat. The only thing York cared about was Helios. He left Bisri floating there and sped back upstream.

Another flare crawled up the sky and caught fire. York traced the trajectory back to the ground and there, on a patch of beach, he saw Chang.

York ran the boat aground at Chang’s feet. He clambered out and stood swaying on the sand. Dozens of soldiers milled around, none showing interest in York or the launch. Between the distant mercury vapor lamps and the last of the flare, he had enough light to read the concern on Chang’s face. As he lumbered toward him, the concern turned to fear.

“My God, man,” Chang said in English. “What happened to you?”

“Where’s Helios?”

“Did you find Bisri?”

York gestured backward with his thumb. “In the water. The dynamite too. The dam’s safe. Where’s Helios?”

“You need a doctor. You’re in no condition to—”

“Do not,” York whispered, “argue with me. We had a deal. I did my part. You do yours.”

“One minute.” Chang grabbed a passing officer and said something to him in rapid-fire Arabic, pointing to the river. The officer glanced at York and quickly looked away again. When Chang finished, the officer started to salute, thought better of it, and dashed away, yelling into a walkie-talkie.

“Helios,” York said.

“He landed his helicopter up there, on the foundations of the hydroelectric plant.” Chang pointed to the wall of granite above the tunnels where Bisri had worked. “He couldn’t resist being here for the show.”

“They let him land there?”

“He does it all the time, to watch. He has powerful friends, even here.”

“How do we get up there?”

Reluctantly Chang said, “I have a Rover.”

“And a gun?”

His hesitation was even briefer as he handed over the pistol that he’d threatened York with on the beach at Abu Simbel, a hundred years ago. It was a Walther P38, tough and reliable.

“I must be completely insane,” Chang said.

“I hope so,” York said. He wasn’t sure what he meant.

Chang led him to yet another official Land Rover, this one with keys in the ignition. “You drive,” York said.

“Goddamn right I drive,” Chang muttered, and York laughed. The laughter came out with an edge of hysteria and he bit his lip to make himself stop.

Chang took the high road around the pit, inland from the river, climbing into the pale granite bluffs, past the massive girders that supported the floodlights, past the cliffs that had been blasted for rock to build the coffer dam, past the noise and the heat until stars filled the windscreen. York began to shiver again.

“You’ve lost a lot of blood,” Chang said.

“Drive,” York said.

The road curved back toward the river. In the distance was a long, gray, level plain, like some grim Greek version of the afterlife. But it was only concrete, and at the end of it winked the green and red running lights of a helicopter.

The road ended at a low gate made of heavy steel pipe, padlocked. York got out of the Rover, the Walther in his hand. He wondered if he had the strength to climb over the gate. Behind him he heard Chang rummaging in the back of the Rover, and ahead of him he saw a massive man standing at the very edge of the concrete slab, staring down into the floodlit pit below. He towered over his bodyguards, one on either side of him. The bodyguards were not in white robes but in full combat gear, including Kalashnikovs and bulletproof vests. Helios himself wore a dark gray business suit and he had already started to turn when York called out to him.

“Helios!”

The gate was four feet high. York crawled over it, stumbled, managed somehow to keep his feet. He was unable to hold the Walther steady. He must have seemed drunk and the thought shamed him.

“Helios, you bastard!”

Helios pointed to each of the bodyguards in turn, pointed to York, and began to walk unhurriedly toward the helicopter.

York was at least a hundred meters away. He broke into a shambling run and fired a shot that ricocheted pathetically off of the concrete.

The bodyguards knelt and took aim.

In a chilling moment of lucidity, York saw that his heroic fantasy had gone fatally wrong. He dropped to the ground and fired again in the direction of Helios.

The rattle of automatic weapon fire cut the night and then there was silence.

#

York found to his surprise that he was still alive. He hurt too much to be dead.

The two bodyguards lay sprawled across the concrete, motionless. Helios stood at the door of the helicopter, looking at something to York’s left. He was too far away for York to read his expression.

Using both hands, York emptied the Walther’s clip as Helios got into the helicopter and the helicopter lifted gently off the concrete. It rose into the night, turning sideways so York had one last look at the concentric circles of the sun god Ra on the fuselage. Then it turned again and slowly flew away.

He heard footsteps. Chang stood beside him, holding a Soviet Dragunov sniper rifle. York wanted to thank him, only the cold was in his chest now and he could no longer speak. He didn’t want to close his eyes for fear that he would never open them again. But the last of his will was gone and his eyes closed anyway.

#

He was in a bed, in a room cluttered with broken wooden furniture, chests and tables and wardrobes and cabinets. Dusty sunlight filtered through wooden shutters. He had been there for a while, waking and sleeping, because he recognized the room, though he didn’t know where it was.

He touched his throbbing head, which was wrapped in bandages, and then his chest, also wrapped. He was terribly thirsty.

He turned his head and saw a blue enameled pitcher on a cracked nightstand next to the bed. When he reached for it, his aim was poor and it banged and clattered onto the tile floor. The noise set off a chain reaction of barking dogs that started in the next room and spread in all directions.

The floor was laid in an intricate hexagonal pattern, a trompe l’oeil in shades of gray and green that looked like a pyramid of blocks with the light side facing up. Then York blinked and the blocks reversed themselves, the light side now facing down. He was still staring at it when Nadya came in.

“You’re awake again,” she said. “Do you remember where you are this time?”

“No,” York said. Shaking his head seemed like a bad idea.

“You’re in Cairo. You’ve been here five days now. You’re staying with a friend of ours who fixes broken things. And sometimes broken people.”

“Melody?”

“She’s here too. At the moment she’s less broken than you are, but you will probably heal faster, God willing.”

“Chang?”

“Home in Irkutsk. He is a Hero of the Soviet Union and he tells me he will receive the Order of Lenin.”

The next name came harder. “Helios?”

“In Greece at the moment.”

“Was he…did they charge him…?”

“Helios was not implicated in any way in the plot against the High Dam. Bisri and his men are in prison and will likely be executed.”

“Chang had a sniper’s rifle. He killed both of Helios’s bodyguards. He should have killed Helios too.”

“Al Rayyes was able to cover up the deaths of the bodyguards. He could never have covered up the death of a man like Helios. It would have meant Chang’s life, and it was not Chang’s fight. He saved your life, and you should be grateful.”

“I’ll be grateful when Helios is dead.”

“York, you must listen to me. If you devote your life to killing Helios, the only thing that will happen is that you will die. Even if you should somehow succeed, which is virtually impossible, one of his sons would simply take over his empire. His sons are exactly like him, if not more spoiled and narcissistic, and nothing would change.

“And you have responsibilities. What happened to Melody is your fault, the result of your carelessness, your selfish desire for gratification. She cannot go back to the life she had, not now, perhaps never. Someone must take care of her, perhaps for quite a while.”

York winced. Guilt, fatigue, and pain hammered at him. “If I don’t go after Helios, he’ll come after me.”

“I doubt he even remembers you. Does it matter to you whether you swat a fly or the fly escapes? As long as the fly doesn’t bother you again?”

York looked away.

“I know these are hard words. No man likes to be told of his unimportance. Your importance lies elsewhere.”

“Where? I can’t go back to my old life either.”

“No. Al Rayyes has reported you dead to your government, killed while attempting to sabotage the High Dam. He is making quite a stink about it.” She smiled for the first time. “Al Rayyes is in fact quite grateful to you. He has arranged accommodations for you and Melody in Khartoum.”

“Khartoum?”

“It is quite a beautiful city. Your apartment is in Garden City, which is much like Garden City here in Cairo. I have seen the neighborhood. Stucco houses in wonderful colors, wrought iron balconies like in Paris, very near the river, with many flowers and trees.”

“What would I do there?”

“Eventually I imagine you will have to find a job. Maybe you could be an English teacher.”

Talking was too much effort. His eyes lost focus.

“I didn’t expect you to agree,” Nadya said. “Not at first.”

#

On a Wednesday afternoon in December, a black ZIL 111 pulled up to the central Cairo branch of Barclays Bank. A chilly wind blew out of the eastern desert. A tall, very thin man in a hat and sunglasses got out, carrying a briefcase. The car remained at the curb. Twenty minutes later he emerged from the bank and got back in the car.

A petite, auburn haired woman shared the back seat with him. She also wore a hat, as well as a veil, like a woman in mourning. She was in her late twenties, with the air of a much older woman.

Another woman sat in the front, next to the uniformed driver. She was tall, with shoulder-length black hair and black-framed glasses. “Did everything go all right?” she asked.

“Fine,” the man said. He set the briefcase on the floor, leaned back in the seat, and closed his eyes. “No problems.”

“Good,” the woman said, and turned to the driver. “To the train station, please.”

“Aiwah.”

She smiled at the man in the back seat. “Bismillahi rahmani rahim.”

The man returned the smile at lower amplitude. “If you say so.”

The petite woman covered the man’s hand with her own and looked out the window as the car moved away from the curb.

From the mosque at the end of the street came the first notes of the afternoon call to prayer. The call spread from minaret to minaret and echoed across the murky surface of the River Nile.

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