CHAPTER ONE: MOUSE
Cairo, EgyptPresent Day
This neighborhood is full of ghosts. Everywhere I look a memory lingers. Most of them are ugly. There, in the long shadow of the Tulun Mosque, I met Mohammed the first time. Three blocks to the east, just beyond that silk and tech market, I betrayed him.
With my mind on the past, it’s unsettling to see so many people on the street. The Cairo I remember was little more than a ghost town. In the forty years since I first left, the city has regained its notorious reputation as the loudest place on earth. There are women in their flowing hijab pushing prams, men in suits subvocalizing stock tips on the LINK, kids begging for credit uploads, marketers hawking cheap plastic crap, and students flirting real-time. Electric motorbikes whiz through the narrow streets, while gear twinks scoot by on steam-powered contraptions of all manner, despite a plethora of signs posted in English and Arabic forbidding anything but pedestrians.
All the activity makes my head spin, especially before my “morning” coffee. Of course, I’m not supposed to be drinking anything before sunset, it being Ramadan, but, in my opinion, the bigger sin would be subjecting anyone to my non-caffeinated personality.
I take a steadying sip and watch the sun set in deep pink and purple polluted splendor on the glassy-expanse of the Great Pyramids.
If you’re unhappy, why come here at all, father?
Page’s note blinks on the handheld that, a moment ago, had the Guardian's entertainment section. “You know, I was reading that,” I say.
No you weren’t. You were staring morosely at the tech market.
Of course he can track my focus. Mostly, Page lives in my head via all the mouse.net bits that miraculously started working after I hung out with an angel who was probably Satan. But that’s another story.
Page knows how cranky I am when I first wake up. No one should be in my head before I get my first jolt, so often he’ll talk around me through various electronic devices. It’s disconcerting to say the least when your hotel toaster tells you good morning in your own damn voice.
I know I’m supposed to call him Strife or some other crap-ass moniker, but he’s always been my Page, so screw that.
You have no respect for me.
I roll my eyes. Track that, Page. “You sound like a teenager,” I tell him. “I came here for you, you know. You asked me to, remember?”
I asked to go to Mecca. Specifically, I reminded you that you have not yet performed hajj, and you are getting up in years. This, however, is not Mecca. Mecca is precisely 1,285 kilometers east of here.
“Have patience, grasshopper,” I say, taking another sip. I have to crook my elbow close to my body to keep from being jostled by passers-by. Too damn many people, I tell you.
Merciful Allah, I sound old.
Technically, you are ‘elderly.’
“Oh thanks for that one, Page. I am so never calling you Strife.”
“All the kids these days sub-vocalize, you know.” It’s Deidre. She’s come to join me at the café.
I’m not sure why she agreed to tag along on my little sojourn to the homeland. Maybe the heat is good for her hip joints too. Or maybe it’s because Michael is AWOL again – off to heaven or wherever he goes – and the only apparent perk of being the mother of the messiah is that she returns your LINK texts now and then. Why I let her come, well, that one’s easy. I’m a sucker for a pretty face and size six undies no matter how old we both grow.
Her hair, like mine, now has a lot of gray. The whiter-than-blonde bits have come in wiry and wild, and somehow even more “I just rolled out of bed” looking. It still turns me on. Intensely.
Like her eyes, which always seem to be scanning for the criminal element that just lurks behind my own.
“Don’t you start on my age as well. I can kick both your asses,” I say.
I wouldn’t count on it. She’s still ‘packing heat.’
Page uses my eye to highlight the silhouette of the colder steel hidden under Deidre’s light linen blazer. “Cool. Do you do x-ray vision, too?”
Sure. But I doubt you’ll find it very tantalizing.
He shows me her bones and a soft outline of skin and flesh, mostly blurred by layers of clothes. He’s right. Not very sexy, except in a medical thriller sort of way.
When my vision returns, it’s to Deidre’s scowling face. “All these years and you’re still looking for a peep show?”
I smile impishly and shrug. “I’m officially a dirty old man.”
“You’re officially irritating.”
A waiter appears and deposits the Turkish coffee she ordered via the LINK. I’m weirdly jealous, even though I have full access to mouse.net which is the primary interface of Cairo – and, well, most of North Africa. But, my LINK connection is still slag, how any of my connections work still baffles me.
You made a deal with the devil.
“Oh yeah, that’s right.”
“That you’re irritating? I’m glad we agree.”
“Ha, ha.” I sip my coffee and shoot her my best sarcastic side-long glance. “I was talking to Page.”
“Say ‘hi’ for me”
“Hi for me,” I dutifully repeat. Tapping the hard lump at my temple that once held the state-of-the-art wire-wizard LINK gear, I add, “Do it yourself, you’ve got the LINK.”
You two are like an old married couple.
“What, like you and Dragon?”
“Say ‘hi’ to her too, will you?” Deidre says just to bug me, and picks up my handheld to scan the headlines, which Page has nicely replaced for her.
What are we doing here, father?
My eyes can’t help but return to the silk market. I can almost smell the dust and rot of the Blackout Years. “We’re here to put some ghosts to rest.”
I was trying to find God when Allah gave me Mohammed.
Blinding afternoon sun cast long shadows through the courtyard of the Ahmed Ibn Tulun mosque. I stumbled through the shifting sand that covered the courtyard. My blood stained the few exposed cobblestones in dark, unholy spatters. I’d come here by instinct, drawn by a memory of peace and safety.
I should have known the blackout had destroyed everything that had once been good in my city.
“Hello?” my voice reverberated in the empty arcades, bouncing through pointed stone arches. “Could someone please help me?”
Since I spoke in Arabic, my words had been directed at God, who I still secretly hoped lived here within these ancient, sacred walls. My pleas received no answer, however. God, it seemed, like most Cairenes, had moved on to better real estate.
Trembling legs could no longer support me, so I crumpled to the ground, with a soft, muffled, “Fuck goddamn, mother fuck.”
Of course, it was these words that Allah heard most clearly.
Peeking around the curved edge of an archway, a boy close to my own age appeared like an angel, a shy cherub. His round, feminine face was made even more spherical by an overgrown halo of hair and wispy beard that encircled his chin.
“Hey,” he said, echoing the English with which I’d chosen to swear. His tone was high and light and nervous. “Are you okay?”
Given the blood that had started to seep from the deep wounds in the flesh of my backside, the only appropriate answer seemed, “No, not really. You?”
Strangely, this seemed to delight him. He crept closer. I could see the flash of a wide, bright grin on his dark face. “You really do speak English! My prayers have been answered.”
At least that made one of us.
In deference to his joyful mood, I promptly passed out.
The next few weeks were lost in fever-induced haze and dreams of virgins-who-were-sometimes-men and boys-with-soft-lips and sweet songs of angels.
Music continued into my first forays into wakefulness. I heard English nursery rhymes and calls to prayer in mangled Arabic. It was the last bit that shook the final webs of fever from my brain. I have always been a word nerd, and I simply had to survive long enough to correct his pronunciation.
I woke up saying the Arabic accurately over and over and over again, and him, kneeling at my side, chanting carefully along.
“Oh hey,” he said, looking deeply into my eyes as though searching for signs of intelligent life. “You’re really in there now, aren’t you?”
“Mostly,” I said, finding my voice thick with disuse.
Dusty sunlight pierced ragged gauze curtains in sharp, bright shafts. We were no longer in the mosque, this much I could tell. The room was narrow and hardly large enough for the two of us. I lay naked in a pile of clean, fresh straw. Straw? I picked up a brittle, yellow stem in my fingers and examined it in disbelief. What, did I awake in a manger?
He smiled happily, almost goofily at me. “I’m Mohammed, by the way.”
“Christian,” I said, noting the irony with a cough of a laugh.
He handed me a water bottle stamped with the UN Peacekeeper’s emblem, and I drank deeply.
“Christian?” He repeated. Then he shook his head, and pointed to his chest. “No, I’m a Muslim. Sunni.”
“Cool! Me too.”
Mohammed's frown deepened. He peered into my face. “Are you still in la-la land?”
“I don’t know, am I?”
Very seriously and deliberately, he explained, “This is Cairo. Egypt. You, uh,”--I couldn’t wait to see what he’d come up with here --“had an accident.”
An accident? Yes, that was a pretty accurate description of my life thus far, and I couldn’t help but laugh more robustly this time. He backed away, nervously. I had to put poor, confused Mohammed out of his misery. So, after wiping the tears from eyes, I put my hand to my heart, “Christian is my name. Christian El-Aref, lately of Maadi British International School before, you know, the apocalypse.” I may have made some exploding sounds here, and mimed the rushing of all that black water that rained down on the city when the Aswan dams broke, because Mohammed went a little pale.
I tended to forget that most people lost their families rather horrifically that day. My mother, at least, had sense enough to orphan me years before the flood. I really only knew my Aunt Fatima and my extended family through her crisp, formal letters. Careful reading between the lines had given the impression of a limp tolerance for mother’s little Infidel-fathered bastard.
Honestly, I’d originally considered the flickering lights of the first waves of the blackout a liberation from the British Boys’ School, which I thought much like escaping the island in Lord of the Flies. Until I actually made my way into Cairo, that was. Then it became obvious the world was so very much uglier than anything I could have imagined.
“Oh,” I said, reaching out to touch his hand in apology. “I didn’t mean any disrespect, you know, about the flood and... well. Sorry.”
Mohammed awkwardly shrugged out from under my gesture. There was something about the shy way he tilted his head away from me that gave me pause. Honestly, the move seemed a little girly. Was he gay or something?
Don’t think I have something against being queer. But, unconsciously, I shifted my ass, feeling sharp stabs deep inside. Suffice to say, I was still a little, uh, sensitive about that topic having just come from where I had. Which reminded me to be grateful, “Thanks, by the way,” I said. “You saved my life. I owe you one. Or maybe a dozen.”
We laughed together this time. It was the start of a beautiful friendship, not unlike, say, other famous bosom buddies: Robin Hood and Friar Tuck, King Arthur and Lancelot, and Jesus and Judas.
Jesus and Judas?
But that’s getting ahead of things.
“Let me get this straight, we’re looking for a guy named Mohammed in Egypt? Needle in a haystack, anyone?” Deidre asks with a laugh, as we stroll down the narrow, crowded marketplace streets. A layer of fine dust covers the pavement, but my mind’s eye still sees corridors of impassable sand dunes. How did they dig it all out? Or are we walking over someone’s grave?
“I’m not sure he’s even a guy any more. Could be a girl,” I say, my voice straining to be heard over the callers hawking fresh fruit and dried halal meat. The smell of baking bread rises above the press of humanity.
“A girl named Mohammed?” She looks to me for confirmation, and I give her a grimace. “Well, at least that narrows it down a bit.”
“I’m not saying he’s a girl for sure. He was a minor so he was prescribed unstable testosterone, you know, in case he changed his mind, which is stupid, you don’t get as far as he did and...” I falter, feeling the guilt crushing down on me like the heat and humidity of this place. I swat at a mosquito. “Look, I don’t even know if he’s still alive. It’s been, what? Forty years?”
We could go to Mecca and pray for guidance.
“Praying has never once helped me,” I snarl to Page. “Anyway, we will get to Mecca. I promise.”
Eid Al'aray in less than a week, father.
My heart sinks, and I mutter angrily, “I know. We’ll make it.”
Deidre eyes me suspiciously. “You know look old when you talk to people that no one else can see, right?”
Just past the tech and silk stall, we turn the corner, and it looms over me, literally casting me in the shadow of my own, sordid past. The building looks much as it had when I brought Mohammed here all those years ago.
The tall, forbidding white-washed walls that enclose the compound glow faintly pinkish in the setting sun. Armed men stand in silent sentry at the cardinal points, unnoticed by most of the crowd below. Beyond the walls, brilliant floodlights illuminate an opulent palace with ornately curved, gold-painted window frames and tall, thin turrets. It could be a miniature Egyptian Taj Majhal, but I know it’s really hell on earth.
“I always knew you were kinky, but, what, you’re into boys now?” She looks at the building I’m staring at and shakes her head. “I can’t believe we came all this way just to go to an illegal brothel. Can’t you find things like this in New York? And really, is this cool during Ramadan? Before you go on hajj?” Deidre’s lips form a thin line of mock disapproval. She’s joking a bit with me, but I’m not there with her. I’m somewhere else entirely. Somewhere far in the past.
“No, there’s no place quite like this.” My voice is fragile.
It surprises me to realize how scared I am. The chill that snakes up my spine has everything to do with standing in the long shadow of this place. I left here with the clothes on my back in bloody ruins, but now I return as an internationally recognized wire-wizard, LINK-thief extraordinaire. But still my knees threaten to buckle.
Sensing I haven’t been listening, Deidre drops her act, and considers our plan. “I don’t know what you’re planning, but I’m not going to be able to get my gun in there.”
“Getting in is rarely the problem. Trust me, it’s getting out that’s hard,” I say, a cold dread settling deep in my guts.
I’m standing perfectly still in the middle of the sidewalk, causing the flow of foot traffic to ripple and reform around us. A man passing us looks at where I’m staring and clucks his tongue. Women mutter, some in derision, some in prayer.
I ignore them all. A multitude of thoughts jitter through my head, none of them terribly helpful, when a familiar – no, exceptionally memorable – red-haired figure strolls up to the front door of my past hell and pulls out a key like he owns the place.
“Morningstar?” Deidre sounds as shocked as I am. “What in God’s green earth is he doing here?”
“I suspect if Morningstar is involved, God has nothing to do with it,” I say.