Our Man in the Sudan
(1st published in The Humdrumming Book of Horror and then in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror)
“I WANT TO SEE the body,” Fanshawe said.
His eyes burned and his sockets were gritty as he blinked, as if the infernal dust that covered everything in this back end of beyond hell hole had somehow also coated the inside of his eyelids. Sat stiffly as he was in the leather-backed chair in Clift’s office, sweat itched under his collar and he fought his fingers” urge to creep up and at least loosen his tie. Instead, he just lifted his chin slightly and made a valiant effort to ignore it.
His shirt clung soaking to his back. It wasn’t helping his rising irritation. He was tired, not so much from the flight that had landed at two o’clock that morning, but from the constant heat. It had been a baking black furnace when he’d walked across the runway to fight for his suitcase in the tatty terminal building, and there’d been no respite since. It seemed the air-conditioning on some floors of the Nile Hilton was refusing to work and unfortunately, he’d been placed on one of those floors. He suspected from the weary expressions of all those who made it to the buffet breakfast, that it was all rooms that were affected, but the management refused to confirm or deny.
Blasted heat. He hated it. Crisp, elegant European winters were his choice; civilised and organised. This African climate left him cold, and even his own poor joke couldn’t raise his mood.
On the other side of the desk, Clift smiled. But then it was probably easier for him to do so, dressed casually as he was in shorts and a T-shirt and making no apology for it. The First Secretary poured thick sweet black tea from a tall metal pot.
“We’ll have to have it local style today, I’m afraid. Had a blasted power cut and the night watchman didn’t start the genny.” He slid a cup and saucer across the desk. “He was probably asleep. Wouldn’t be the first time. Anyway, all the long life’s gone off.”
Fanshawe stared at the cup but didn’t touch it. How anyone could drink anything hot in these temperatures was beyond him.
“The body?” he repeated.
“Ah yes. The body. Well, that is a touch embarrassing as it happens.” Clift took a sip of his own tea and sat back in his chair. With his tan and easy grin he didn’t look at all perplexed by the heat. It didn’t endear him to Fanshawe. Neither did his next sentence.
“I’m afraid we don’t have the body. Not anymore.”
Fanshawe stared. Outside, in the white brightness below, car horns blared loudly and two torrents of guttural Arabic raged over each other.
“What do you mean, you don’t have it?” His own Queen’s English was as dry as the occasional patches of Khartoum grass and scrub that he’d passed on his way to the Embassy.
Spreading his fingers, Clift shrugged. “It was the coffin, you see. God only knows where our standard issue has got too. We haven’t needed one since that poor sod flipped his Land Rover and broke his neck on the way back from Port Sudan, and that was a couple of years ago now.” He shook his head slightly and frowned. “I’m not even sure it was replaced. I’d only been in post a couple of months then, and you know how these things are.”
Fanshawe wasn’t entirely sure that he did. In the cool sophistication of Europe’s Embassies, those on her Majesty’s diplomatic service wore suits and ties and typed everything in triplicate. He swatted a fly away and raised an eyebrow. “Go on.”
Clift took another sip of his tea and leaned forward, his arms resting on the desk. “We tried to borrow one from the Germans but then one of their buggers bloody went and died too and so they needed it back. Didn’t want to ask the Yanks or the Russians. They’d have had a bloody field day with that.” He peered at Fanshawe. “We telexed the FCO. They said he had no next of kin so, to be honest, we didn’t think anyone would be that concerned. In the end we just buried him.”
Fanshawe sighed and looked over to the window. Even through the thick mosquito gauze stretched across it, he thought he’d have to flinch in the white of that sun. Maybe it reflected back up from the dusty, dirty cream of the ground. Perhaps that’s why it seemed so endlessly bright under the empty blue skies of North Africa. He chewed the inside of his mouth slightly. He’d wanted to see the body. There were things he needed to verify.
Clift rummaged in the desk drawer and pulled out a folder. “The doctor examined him and was pretty sure he’d had a heart attack.” He slid the death certificate over so that it sat next to Fanshawe’s untouched tea.
“Local doctor?” Happy to bring his eyes back to the more comfortable view of the seventies furniture that had seen better days, Fanshawe picked up the paper.
“Yes, we’re a minimum staff in a post like this. He’s a good chap, though. Did his training in London.” Clift lit a cigarette, the match barely touching the side of the box before bursting into flames. “I have to say, I don’t really understand this interest in Cartwright’s death. He seemed like an ordinary Second Secretary. So, what’s the story?”
Fanshawe refused the offered cigarette, even though he was a smoker himself. The smoke and the dust combined would probably make him choke. Watching Clift, he wondered how long you had to spend in a place like this before you acclimatised. Too long, was the only conclusion he could reach.
“He was MI6,” he said, eventually. “He’d had some trouble behind the Iron Curtain so he was laying low here. Having some R and R while things quietened down.”
Clift laughed. “Well, a year out here is certainly long enough to be forgotten. Are you worried the Russians tracked him down? If so, I wouldn’t be overly concerned. It’s too hot for spying games out here. I doubt they’d have the energy for it.” He laughed again.
Fanshawe smiled tightly. “Probably not.”
“It seems like you may have had a wasted journey. Sorry about that.”
Fanshawe stood up and shrugged. His shirt was still stuck unpleasantly to his skin. “It’s a week until the next BA flight back to London, which gives me time to take a look around. Perhaps check his files. Just to be sure.”
Clift nodded. “Of course. Anything I can do to help just let me know.”
“I’m going to want a full report on his death and this . . . irregular burial procedure.” He paused. “Where did you bury him? The cemetery?”
Under Fanshawe’s superior tone, Clift lost a little of his laid-back manner. “Um, no. It takes forever to get the paperwork for a foreign national to get a plot there, and in this heat and with the power cuts we’ve been having . . .” he paused. “Well, you just can’t keep a body in it for long.”
“So, where did you bury him?”
As he fed a fresh sheet of paper in the typewriter before answering, Fanshawe noted that at least Clift had the decency not to look up as he spoke.
“Out on the edge of the desert near where he lived. Like the locals do. There are bodies in unmarked graves all along the border of Omdurman and the Sahara.”
Unmarked. Fanshawe reconsidered the cigarette.
The first time Cartwright had telexed back to London they’d had the whole team working for ten hours trying to unscramble the message. He wasn’t supposed to be in any kind of contact while lying low in Khartoum let alone sending encrypted sentences at two o’clock in the morning local time. Fanshawe had smoked a lot that night. Cartwright was one of the best. It wasn’t unfeasible, if a little against the unwritten rules of play, for one of his opposite number to have tracked him down.
Eventually, a very tired young woman knocked on his office door, shaking her head. “We’ve been through all the codes, sir. It doesn’t make sense in any of them.” She shrugged and Fanshawe waved her away. He looked down at the original sheet of telex paper with the single sentence printed out on it:
IT’S ALL IN THE SAND.
What the hell could Cartwright mean?
As it was, Cartwright was silent for just over a month before the next telex landed on Fanshawe’s desk. It had been a long five weeks at the London end, during which Fanshawe maintained the protocol of radio silence to protect his hidden man. If Cartwright had something to tell them, he was going to have to get in touch again. In the meantime, all the encryptions were frantically being re-written. Perhaps they were compromised. Perhaps that’s why Cartwright had chosen an ambiguous statement instead of using his allocated code. When the next message came it was as indecipherable as the first:
I CAN HEAR THE THUNDER OF HOOVES;
THE SCREAMING OF THE DYING BEASTS.
After staring at both messages side by side for far too long for sanity, Fanshawe was ready to scream himself. He felt as if he were stuck on the last clue of the Times crossword with no hope of getting the answer. The sentences were imprinted on the back of his eyes. He carried them everywhere with him.
He waited for Cartwright to get in contact again. But there was nothing. Instead, two months later came the Telex that said he’d been found dead in his house in Khartoum. And so here Fanshawe was. Hot, bothered and no closer to being able to solve the puzzle.
“I think I might go back to the hotel for a while. Catch up on some sleep.”
Clift nodded, and Fanshawe was sure there was just a touch of relief in the way the younger man’s shoulders dropped slightly.
“The driver downstairs will take you, sir. Call me if you need anything. Otherwise I’ll pick you up tomorrow morning on my way into the office.”
By the third day Clift picked him up from the Hilton, Fanshawe had given up on the shirt and tie completely, settling in favour of an aertex collared T-shirt over cream slacks. His eyes burned from lack of sleep. It seemed that no one in the building had been capable of fixing the air-conditioning beyond the ground floor level. Fanshawe had stopped asking when that might be rectified. This was primarily because he was mildly concerned that he might commit an act of murder if anyone else was foolish enough to give him the answer “Bukrah, in sh’Allah.” Tomorrow, if Allah wills it. So far, Allah was very much against the idea.
As the Land Rover bounced across the uneven, rocky and pot-holed dusty tracks that served as roads, Fanshawe squinted out through the open window. Beyond the shallow ditches that ran along each side of the street, old women sat on low stools hawking their piles of paper bread and watermelons to any passers by. Their skin was as cracked as the ground they came from, eyes black suspicious raisins in a desert of wrinkles as they watched the two white men drive by.
Clift paused at a cross roads, waiting for the melee of trucks and buses so over-loaded with people hanging from the sides that they looked like they might tip right over to stop blaring horns and figure out whose right of way it really was. Fanshawe was so busy trying to decide which potential accident was going to happen first that he didn’t see the man approaching and jumped when he appeared at the window, waving the necklace at him.
“Jesus Christ.” He pulled in a little, away from the leathery hand intruding his space trying to force him to touch the jewellery as if perhaps that would oblige Fanshawe to buy it. The metal and ivory pendant dangling from the shoelace strap looked tarnished and battered.
“Y’ella,” he muttered in disgust at the skinny man on the other side of the car door, whose free arm below the hem of the well-worn Adidas T-shirt, was loaded with necklaces and bracelets all with the same charm attached. The man’s response was to lean in closer, words rushing in thick guttural Arabic, too fast for Fanshawe to follow.
Clift revved the engine and pulled the Land Rover forward, leaving the man standing in the street behind them, still waving and shouting at the dust trails of their tyres.
“Sorry about that,” Clift said. “Seems they’ve been selling those bloody things everywhere. Must be the latest local fashion.”
Winding the window up a little to prevent further intrusion, but to still allow in whatever hot breeze the car’s motion could create, Fanshawe shook off the unsettled feeling and stared at the strange dips at the side of the road.
“What are the ditches for?” he asked Clift. Around them the huts and corrugated iron shacks slowly turned into rows of low, one-story buildings that made up the houses and shops as they came nearer into the centre of the capital city. They looked like they’d been forged from the sand around them. Maybe there was brick and plaster somewhere under their creamy surfaces, but it was well-hidden. The dust had claimed them, as it seemed the dust claimed and coated everything.
“There’s your answer,” Clift nodded over to the right. A thin man who could have been anywhere between twenty-five and forty lifted the folds of his white jelabiah and squatted at the edge. Fanshawe frowned.
“Is he . . .?”
“Yes, ’fraid so.” The car bounced past the man. “The ditches are the closest you’ll come to public lavatories in Khartoum. Damned health hazard, but there’s no telling the locals.” Clift continued, swerving to get past a battered truck that pulled out without even pausing. “The German that died? That was because of those ditches. We had the first of the big rains. Came out of nowhere and flooded the roads. The German’s jeep got stuck in a pothole and he got out to try and clear the wheel. Found himself knee deep in sewerage. He must have had a cut that got infected, because it was dysentery and then blood poisoning and then all over. Poor chap.”
Fanshawe said nothing for a while. He couldn’t imagine water in these streets. The ground must devour it within a day; no amount of rain could be enough to quench the thirst of this parched land. The car made its way through the increasingly busier streets. Wild brown dogs panted under parked cars, ready to dart out to claim dropped food or to snarl at anyone that got too close. Men and women talked and laughed and sat outside shops or on the wrecked pavements in dusty mixes of tatty western clothes, Arab jelabiahs and bright tribal dresses; a melange of fabric and dark skin. Flies settled unnoticed on dark flesh.
Somewhere in the distance a Muezzin began a call to prayer. Slowly all activity ceased and prayer mats unfurled, for a few moments the majority of the city on their knees, facing Mecca. Fanshawe wondered if the man crouching by the ditch had finished in time. Turning into the Embassy car park, they passed three exceptionally tall and ebony black men who stood frozen on the corner, staring impassively in at Clift and Fanshawe. They carried long sticks, which for a moment Fanshawe thought might be spears. Tribal men, not Arab men.
He sighed as the Land Rover came to a halt. “It’s not quite Bonne, is it?” he said, eventually.
“No, sir.” Clift stepped out into the heat. “It’s not quite Bonne.”
By mid-day, Fanshawe had finished his second sweep of Cartwright’s office. He’d taken the phone apart, checked the light sockets and even the air-conditioning vent and there was no sign of any bugs. Sweating and fed up, he sat back in the desk chair. Maybe Clift was right. Maybe it was too damned hot out here for spying games. Maybe Cartwright had just got a touch of sunstroke and then died of a heart attack. These things did happen.
He pulled at the top drawer of the desk, tugging it open even though it was stiff. He wasn’t convinced by his own argument though. Cartwright had undergone a full medical after the fiasco in Moscow and passed it with flying colours. His heart had been in perfect working order.
He yanked the drawer open and checked its contents again. Pens, paper, a stapler. All basic and ordinary and as expected. He pushed the drawer and it caught again. Something was stopping it running smoothly. He frowned as he slid a hand over the rough surface of the drawer’s base. An envelope was cello-taped there. Fanshawe ripped it free and emptied the contents onto the desk.
Photographs. At least twenty. Spreading them carefully out so he could study each one, Fanshawe clenched his teeth slightly. They were pictures of the desert. There wasn’t a single soul in any of them, just the endless sand and occasional black rocky outcrop under the bright cloudless sky. He searched their edges to see if maybe they lined up, like some kind of jigsaw puzzle, but it was a fruitless task. To all intents and purposes, they were just random images, holiday snaps. So why had Cartwright felt the need to hide them? Were the Russians or East Germans planning to use part of the desert in some way? It didn’t seem likely. So what the hell had the man been playing at?
The office door opened and a trolley appeared, carrying white mugs and a large urn, and pushed by a grinning Sudanese man, the darkness of whose skin was emphasised by the crisp cleanliness of his white jelabiah.
“Tea, sir?” There was surprisingly only a hint of the thick Arab accent in his intonation; a far cry from the dusty Sudanese who had thrust his arm so rudely into the Land Rover that morning. The second surprise was that Fanshawe did indeed feel like a cup of tea, despite the acrid heat.
“Yes please. With milk if there is any.”
“Certainly, sir.” With one hand he poured a splash of milk into a cup and then placed it under the urn. The tea poured, hot steam rising up from it, and then with the same hand the man carefully placed it on the desk. He looked at the pictures and smiled.
“Interesting photographs. Deceptive, aren’t they?”
Fanshawe had been about to sip his tea, and he paused. “How do you mean?”
“When you see the desert like that it looks flat. But of course, it is not.”
Fanshawe stared at the images spread out in front of him. The ground looked level to him.
“Look there,” the tea wallah pointed to a slight undulation in the sand. “It looks just like a ripple on the surface, yes?”
Fanshawe nodded in agreement.
“But,” the local continued, “it is not. Just beyond that is the drop of a dune, maybe six feet or more. The desert is full of them.” He shook his head slightly. “But to those that do not know the Sahara, it appears flat.”
Fanshawe stared at the picture more closely and thought he could just see, in the hint of the shadows on the golden ground, what the man meant. “Tell me,” he said. “Are there such drops in all of these photos?”
The man’s eyes scanned the display and nodded. “Yes, I think so. When the Mahdi fought the British at Omdurman, they used the land’s deception as part of a battle strategy. While some stood and lured the British forward on the flat sand, others would wait in the drops between the dunes with their swords ready. As the cavalry charged at the enemy they didn’t see the drop until it was too late. The Mahdi’s men would hack at the surprised horses’ feet with their swords as they galloped and both beast and man would fall screaming into the pit.” He smiled at Fanshawe. “Not bad for native thinking, eh, sir?”
Fanshawe nodded. “Not bad, at all.”
Looking at the clean cups, the perfect whiteness of the man’s outfit and the way he stood tall and with dignity, Fanshawe’s curiosity got the better of him. “You seem a little over-educated for your current position. And your English is perfect. Surely you could be better employed elsewhere.”
The man shook his head sadly and then revealed the stump at his right wrist. “Like many others, I’ve moved up from the South. I was a teacher of Politics at the university in Juba.” He shrugged. “But then, apparently I stole a small item from the market and despite my protests of innocence . . .” His words drifted off, and Fanshawe stared again at the man’s missing right hand.
“A man with a criminal record finds it hard to get good employment, even here in the north. But I can’t complain. I have good pay and conditions.” The tea man smiled. “God save the Queen.”
“Yes, quite,” Fanshawe muttered, but any slight empathy he’d felt for the man disappeared as something else he’d said gripped his thoughts. He sipped his tea as Cartwright’s second telex typed itself out in his head.
I CAN HEAR THE THUNDER OF HOOVES;
THE SCREAMING OF THE DYING BEASTS.
“Tell me,” he was surprised to find the tea was good; strong and hot and not even a hint of sourness in the milk. “Did you know the man in this office? The man that died?”
The tea wallah’s eyes slipped away and he shrugged. “A little.” He paused. “Did he take these pictures?”
“I thought so.”
Fanshawe frowned. “How did you know they were his?”
The man sighed. “They say we all walked out of Africa in those first days of mankind and then spread to the four corners of the globe. Perhaps the desert calls some of us back. I think maybe your friend was one of those people.” He started to wheel his trolley out. “I think he became fascinated with the desert. The sand was in his eyes from his first haboob. He became different.”
The Sudan Club was a small oasis of green in the middle of the dry city. Sprinklers turned on the vast lawns and from where he sat in the bar, Fanshawe could see the swimming pool glinting blue under the floodlights that kept the dark away. Perhaps somewhere else, people would notice the tattiness of some of the paint-work and the chips in the floor tiles, but after four days of African dust and heat, even to Fanshawe, the private club whose membership was only open to those with British passports seemed like an idyll; a visit back to the glory days of the British Empire.
And at least the air was cool, fuelled by a generator that ran somewhere out at the back of the building, its throb like gentle background music. It seemed that the city danced to the beat of the generator drum, always one or two roaring somewhere, so that in the end you barely heard them. Maybe the silence of bare feet on sand would be more disturbing.
He leant on the marble bar and sipped his drink. It was the perfect mix of gin and tonic, just a large enough splash of the first, poured over huge rocks of ice, before being topped up with mixer. Enough of these and he wouldn’t need his anti-malaria pills. Still, it felt like it had been a long day.
He’d spent the afternoon at Cartwright’s house across on the western side of the wide muddy Nile, out past the edge of the town of Omdurman. He’d hoped to find an answer there for why the agent had moved from the centre of Khartoum, to the dustier, disappeared streets that bordered the desert, where only scrubby dry grasses and bare-footed goat herders lined what should be the pavements. At least in the capital Cartwright could have gone to the hubbub of Street 15 and bartered for eggs, sure that at least two or three of them wouldn’t have been broken on the uneven journey by the time he got home. Instead he’d moved to the back end of the back end of beyond. It didn’t make sense.
Impressive as the Omdurman house appeared – rising up on two levels, with a balcony that ran all round the top floor and three gates to get in – there was a sense that it was unfinished. Where there should have been gardens surrounding the building, there was only dirt, the lawns never having been laid, and although at the front of the property there was a high, metal gate and impressive walk up to the double fronted heavy wooden door, it seemed that Cartwright favoured the low gate at the back that squealed open onto a short path leading up to the servant’s quarters on the right, and the door into the kitchen, straight ahead. It was by that gate that his car was parked.
The servant’s quarters were empty, although there was evidence that Mahmood, the boy, was still living there even though Clift claimed not to have seen him since Cartwright’s death. A small jar of coffee and a pot of rice sat on a low chipped Formica table by the narrow camping bed, above which, on the uneven walls that looked made of mud, hung an amulet of ivory and tarnished metal. Its diamond shape was less regular than the one that had been thrust so rudely through the Land Rover window that morning. This one looked older. The symbols or letters that were battered into its surface made no sense to Fanshawe and he left it where it was and headed to the main house.
In the spotless kitchen, the fridge was empty apart from a bottle of Gordon’s gin. A case of Shweppes tonic sat on the clean tiles alongside it and for a moment Fanshawe stared at them. The city of Omdurman, unlike Khartoum and the Nile Hilton, seemed to be fine for electricity. The gin was cold and smooth blocks of ice filled the trays in the small freezer section. Tempted as he was to pour himself a drink, as much to fight his frustration as cool himself down, he resisted, and instead methodically did as he was trained to do, and worked his way through the various electrical appliances, searching for cameras and bugs, sweeping each room. It was painstaking and slow work, but as with Cartwright’s office at the Embassy there was nothing.
All he found was precise neatness, a well-made bed, and ironed shirts in the closet. Not even any photographs, although there were slight tacky marks on the walls of the second bedroom as if perhaps pictures of some kind had been stuck up until recently. He’d stared at those marks for a long time but they refused to speak to him.
Eventually he went out on the balcony. The sun-baked tiles burned his feet through his shoes and shading his eyes with his hand, he looked out over the ocean of the desert that filled his view. Was this why Cartwright had moved? Simply to be closer to the desert? He stared at the dunes which looked flat even though he knew better and bit the inside of his cheek. But why? What was so special about the desert? The desert glared back at him.
Clift had picked him up at 5:00 pm, just as the heat of the day was turning its rage inwards, and they’d driven in almost silence to the club. Fanshawe was sure there had been a slight edge of smugness in Clift’s expression as he’d peered over and asked, “Everything in order?” Fanshawe could hear the unspoken words echoing underneath the louder ones. Sometimes heart attacks just happen. Maybe it was just the heat addling his tired brain, but experience told him that smugness like that normally came from someone who thought they’d got away with something.
He wiggled his glass at the barman who nodded and waited for Clift to finish the last mouthful of his food before he spoke.
“So why did he move from the first house? Omdurman’s a good forty-five minutes drive from here. It doesn’t seem practical.”
“He got an infestation of ants. Red ones. Those bastards really sting when they bite.” Clift pushed away the remains of his chicken and chips in a basket so that it sat next to Fanshawe’s, ready to be silently cleared away.
Fanshawe stared at it, as he mulled over Clift’s words. Meat still hung uneaten from the tiny half-skeleton; just more greasy Western waste in a starving country. No one would boil those bones for chicken stock. Fanshawe idly wondered how the local men that worked at the club continued with their benign smiles and nods of subservience. Perhaps one day someone would drive by the Sudan club to find confused white heads stuck on poles at its gates, mimicking Gordon, brows still furrowed. What did we do?
“He moved out while it was being exterminated. And just never moved back.”
Fanshawe looked up from the basket, firmly back on his very Western business. “There was no mention of ants in his file. That just shows that he requested a move. To that particular house, in fact.”
As if appearing to support Clift’s argument, a small black ant industriously carried an impossibly unwieldy crumb over to the far edge of the bar. It seemed to Fanshawe that ants and flies were a way of life in this part of the world. Ants wouldn’t bother Cartwright, however painful their bite was. And he would know better that to draw attention to himself, even in a minor way.
“Paperwork isn’t one of our strong points.” Clift shrugged. “Not on the admin things like housing. The Embassy’s too small for a dedicated housing officer.”
The barman replaced Fanshawe’s empty glass with a fresh, full one. Around them the room was relatively quiet apart from a fat man sitting further down from them who was laughing loudly, either with or at, a much thinner middle-aged man and his rather bored-looking pale wife. Fanshawe thought that perhaps Khartoum was not the best place for the pale-skinned to find themselves. He had a feeling you could burn in the shade here if your skin was so inclined.
“What’s a haboob?” he asked suddenly, and was sure Clift twitched.
“Haboob?” The twitch again; a small tic in the man’s cheek. “Where did you hear that word?”
“It was something the tea boy said.” Cartwright changed after the first haboob. That’s what the chai wallah had implied.
Clift lit a cigarette. “It’s the local name for a desert sandstorm. We’ve had a few over the past couple of months. The season for them really starts now. You can feel the potential for one in the air most days.” He drained his glass; almost half his drink gone in one go. “They’re quite a sight.”
Fanshawe thought he could make out the first beginnings of a bead of sweat on the younger man’s hairline, even within the cool embrace of the chugging air-conditioning. He lit a cigarette of his own.
“The tea boy said Cartwright was quite fascinated with them.”
Clift’s eyes slid away. “Yes, I suppose . . . although he only saw his first one a couple of months ago. By the end of the season I’m sure he would have got used to them.” He sucked almost a centimetre of the Marlboro into blazing red and orange.
Fanshawe watched him. How old was the first secretary? Thirty maybe? He suddenly looked younger. Clift may well go far within the ranks of her Majesty’s Diplomatic service, but he would never make MI6. Not with that tic telling in his cheek. He sipped his drink. It really was very good.
“Perhaps,” he said softly, “he moved to be nearer to the desert?”
Clift stared at the bar. “Maybe.”
Behind them, the thin man and his pale-skinned wife said their goodbyes and headed out into the night. The fat man stayed where he was, a fresh drink placed in front of him. He smiled at the barman.
Over Clift’s shoulder, Fanshawe could see the barman laughing along with the man’s English/Arabic joke, but there was a sense that he’d heard it far too many times before. He took the tip though, before returning to cleaning and polishing glasses.
The bar paused in silence for a moment and then Clift pushed his stool away and stood up. “I think I’ll head home.” He busily picked up his wallet and car keys, avoiding eye contact. “Do you want a lift to the Hilton?”
Fanshawe shook his head. “I’ll get a taxi later. Think I’ll enjoy the air-conditioning for a little while longer.”
Clift nodded. “I’ll pick you up in the morning then.” As Clift moved, Fanshawe caught a glimpse of shoelace around his neck. Thin, black and local.
“I’ll be there.”
Sliding his glass round in his fingers, enjoying the cool condensation, Fanshawe watched him go. Heart attack. Haboob. Omdurman. Sahara. All of those words were wrapped up in the tic in his young colleague’s face. But what was he hiding? Cartwright going mad? Maybe he was poisoned with a slow-acting agent. Maybe that’s why he changed. After his first haboob. And why was Clift wearing a pendant like the one they’d seen this morning?
He turned back to the bar and found that the fat man was watching him, sharp eyes peering out from sockets dragged downwards with the weight of his cheeks. Despite the jowls, he managed a grin.
“Jasper Vincent. Freelance journalist.” He raised his glass as a welcome. “How are you finding Khartoum?”
“Is my newness that obvious?”
Vincent laughed, and although it was loud and brash, there was an earthy warmth there. “Your skin doesn’t look like leather yet.”
“Fair enough comment. Alan Fanshawe. It’s a flying visit for me. Just checking up on some things at the Embassy. Routine paperwork stuff. Freelance, you say?”
Vincent nodded. “Even the BBC doesn’t keep a man out here full time anymore. Not now things have calmed down. I started out with them, but then went native and couldn’t face heading back to London anywhere else for that matter.” He paused. “I presume you’re here about that British dip that died.”
Fanshawe carefully sipped his drink. “You heard about that?”
“It’s a small town. Where ex-pats are concerned, word travels.” Ice that clung to the last hope of solidity clinked within his glass. “And I was in here when that chap that just left and the doctor came in afterwards. They seemed pretty shaken up. They drank a lot at any rate, and neither of them was laughing.”
Signalling the barman to replenish their glasses, Fanshawe was far too well trained to push for more information. It would come soon enough he suspected, from a man like Vincent. And asking was often the very best way of not finding out.
Vincent stood up, sweat holding the creases and crumples in his linen trousers from where he’d been sitting. “Let’s take these onto the terrace. It should be pleasant out there now.”
They left the cool brightness of the bar and Fanshawe followed the fat man out to a metal table and chairs on the red dusty tiles. Yellow bulbs gave out a warm glow above them, and although the air was hot there was just the lightest touch of breeze. As he took his seat Fanshawe listened for a moment to the loud calling of the crickets and other insects who, in the gloom of the lawns and cacti and bushes, seemed determined to drown out the generator’s soft thrum.
Under the glow of one of the lamps, a small sea of black lay in the pool of light. He tossed an abandoned bottle top into it, and the mass rose as one for a moment before fragmenting, the huge flying ants clattering their wings into each other as they hovered before settling back down, drowning the discarded metal disc. Fanshawe shivered a little in disgust. The place was all wrong; dark, alien and wild.
“How on earth could you choose to stay here rather than go back to London?”
Vincent stared out into the darkness, his stomach and arms overflowing from the metal confines of the chair.
“Africa is a strange place,” he said, eventually. “And maybe Sudan is one of the strangest within it. Some people view it as a kind of terra media, lying between and linking Africa and the Arab world. Others see it as lying on the fault line between two peoples, torn between them and unable to unite. Maybe it’s both of those things. They certainly have their share of problems with the South. That’s what brought me here in the first place, reporting on the civil war. But Sudan is more than that. In the face of the white man its peoples are all one. The Dinka, the Arabs and the Nuer and the other smaller tribes, they can do what we can’t begin to – they all understand the land. They understand the power and truth of living on the edge of poverty and with the vast Sahara challenging them to survive it.”
He paused, and Fanshawe smiled. The man had a way with words. He could have made a good career for himself away from this filthy hellhole. “And you fell in love with that challenge?” Fanshawe was cynical. With his wide girth and the ruddy face of someone destined for an early grave due to far too much enjoyment of the finer things in life, Vincent did not look like a man that wanted the challenges of living on the edge of poverty. In fact, he looked like a man a year away from a heart attack. Fanshawe would believe that death of this man with as much conviction as he couldn’t believe it of Cartwright.
Vincent grinned. “No. I fell in love with a Dinka woman. A tall, ebony beauty full of the strength and quiet promise of the desert. You don’t get women like that back in England. Trust me.”
Fanshawe watched Vincent’s chubby wrist as it reached for his glass and his own smile fell a little. Around it hung ivory and battered metal.
“What is that bracelet? They seem to be everywhere. Some damned local tried to sell me one today and even Clift’s wearing one.”
Vincent’s chubby fingers teased the charm for a moment. “Ah, my magic charm. The wife gave it to me. She insists I wear it in haboob season, and I’m not going to argue with her.”
That word again. Haboob. Fanshawe’s jaw clenched. “I don’t understand the fascination with the bloody desert and the sandstorms,” he muttered, the gin not strong enough to relax him.
Vincent’s convivial appearance had melted away. He looked thoughtful. Almost pensive. “Your man lived out in Omdurman, didn’t he? I heard stories about him, you know. Wandering out in the desert in the full heat of the day, taking photograph after photograph of the dunes.”
Fanshawe sighed. In his years in the service he’d learned there was no point in being secretive with information that was already out there. “It would appear that he had become a little obsessive about the desert in the weeks before his death, yes.” It’s all in the sand. He paused. “After his first haboob.”
Vincent nodded as if all the things that were leaving Fanshawe so confused, were making perfect sense to him. “Yeah, the natives said the spirits in the haboob had got him.” He sat back in his chair, comfortable in the heat.
“People think that Sudan is a Muslim and Christian country, most of its people one or the other. And in some ways that’s true. It seems so the Western world anyway, where we have a habit of only seeing the people we think matter. But the Dinka and the other tribes from the south, they have their own religions. Older ones. And maybe darker and more powerful ones too.”
The crickets roared louder and Fanshawe could help but wonder if they were trying to silence the journalist who considered himself native, but was so obviously not of this land.
“Haboobs are amazing to see.” Vincent looked up into the night sky around them. “You might see one tonight if this wind holds to its promise.” Fanshawe lifted his head. The other man was right: the breeze was getting stronger.
“And sandstorms are all haboobs had been for maybe centuries, until the Dinka started fleeing from the south, crossing the desert and bringing their old religions with them. It was as if perhaps they woke something with their steady march across the sand. Something that had slept for too long and was happy to be woken.” He smiled. “The true religion of the desert dwellers.”
Fanshawe wondered for a long moment if the journalist was slightly mad or maybe had a touch of sunstroke or was just plain drunk. Perhaps there was no real information to be had here. The flying ants shifted a little in the pool of light and he fought a ripple of revulsion.
“What did the doctor say was the cause of death?” Vincent asked.
Fanshawe peered over at the fat man. “Heart attack. Why? What else could it have been?”
Vincent laughed a little. “Well, that would depend on whether you believe in the spirits in the desert.”
“I don’t understand.” Fanshawe wondered if perhaps he was just being lured into a game with the jaded ex-pat; some old public school trick of getting one over on the new boy.
“The Dinka believe a great God lives in the hot earth beneath the endless layers of sand. Most of the time he sleeps in the coolness of the ground away from the sun. But for two or three months of the year, he’s restless and sometimes wakes and reclaims the land, striding through the desert and leaving a huge rolling storm of dust in the wake.”
Vincent looked over at Fanshawe. “The Dinka say that when he walks the desert so do the spirits of those that died in it, all of those that fell or are buried there. They can revisit the living, carried in the cloud. That’s why some of the locals bury their loved ones out on the edge of the city – they hope that they’ll return.”
Fanshawe sniffed. Bloody native hokum-pokum. “That’s an appealing legend.” Perhaps he should have got a lift back to the hotel from Clift. “But you don’t expect me to believe it, do you?”
Vincent grinned, his cheeks squashing his glinting eyes. “No, I don’t. But I’ll tell you this, just so you know.” He leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table. “It wasn’t Clift and the Doctor that buried him out in the desert. It was Mahmood, his servant.” He paused, Fanshawe was sure for effect, before continuing.
“The story goes that your man wandered out in that last haboob, right into the middle of it, to see if the things he thought he’d glimpsed and heard were true. He came back hours later, a walking dead man; his eyes and ears full of sand and muttering incoherently.”
Fanshawe stared. If Vincent hadn’t used Cartwright’s houseboy’s name he’d have been laughing and on his way to find a taxi. As it was his mind was racing. Could Vincent be in the pay of the Russians? And why would the Russians create such an elaborate story when he’d already been told by his own people that Cartwright had died of a common place heart attack? Around him it seemed that the hot black night crept closer, threatening to smother him.
“How do you know this?”
“I told you, word travels. And I’m married to a Dinka. The white man who thought he saw the dead walking in the haboob has been the talk of the Dinka for a few months. They take these things seriously.”
Fanshawe appeared smooth and relaxed as he leaned back in his chair, despite the edge in his nerves. “Go on.”
“Mahmood wanted to call the Faquih to purge the spirits, but the Englishman collapsed on the floor and filled with sand, gripped his arm and wouldn’t let him go. He held him like that for a full five minutes until the desert really claimed him and he died. They had a pact you see. Mahmood had promised that if anything happened to him, he’d bury him in the old traditional ways out by the desert. He called the Embassy man out and when he saw the state of the body and went for the doctor and was in a panic about a bloody coffin, Mahmood took the body to the edge of the desert and buried it before disappearing with whatever money your man had given him.”
“Isn’t Mahmood an Arab name? Why would he believe any of this?”
“Arab father, native mother,” Vincent shrugged. “Most Sudanese have a healthy respect for all the religions. When you live in poverty and with disease and death always ready to grab you, it’s advisable to keep your options open.”
They sat in silence, and behind them a light bulb flickered but kept its hold on the rare stream electricity. The outside of Fanshawe’s gin and tonic glass was damp under his fingers as he finished his drink.
“So, you think Cartwright really believed that the dead walked in the haboobs and wanted to become like them? And you believe that?”
Vincent shook his head slightly. “I believe that he believed it.” He held up his fat wrist with the charm on it. “The amulet is supposed to keep the desert spirits from touching your soul. It protects you from the haboob.” He smiled. “Maybe I’ve been here long enough to start hedging my bets too.”
It was at about five o’clock in the morning that Fanshawe felt the breeze carrying the tiniest particles of dust through the mesh of the mosquito gauze stretched across the open hotel room window. He sat up, his heart thumping hard in his chest for no good reason. Wind tickled his face. More breeze than he’d felt in nearly a full week in the Sudanese capital.
He pushed back the covers, pulled on his trousers and without stopping for a shirt strode to the balcony doors and stepped outside. Despite the hours of darkness that had passed, the tiles under his feet were still pleasantly warm as was the metal rail that he gripped with his fingers. He barely felt them though, as he stared out at the land on the other side of the river, the wind dancing around him, teasing him, laughing at him.
He’d never seen anything like it. In the distance, small white one level houses disappeared into the foaming sand that surged across the land. A tidal wave of brown stretching across the width of his view thundered across the furthest parts of the city. Watching it rise up from the flat cream land, its facing edge billowing like clouds ballooning forward, Fanshawe could only guess at its height. Maybe fifty feet? Sixty? Or was it as much as a hundred feet in the air, endlessly rising towards the African sky.
Fanshawe’s mouth dropped open in awe, as it claimed more of the city below, battered trucks and cars lost beneath its rolling movement, the desert like a murky cloud so huge and heavy that it had dropped from the sky, spreading out on the land and swallowing everything it touched in the whistle of its wind.
Against the silent backdrop of the pale pink horizon, the haboob raged. Fanshawe squinted. Despite the grit that pelted painfully into his bare skin he leaned forward. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t be. For a moment out in the wild madness that had been the desert, he thought that the sandy shape of a huge horse’s head, its mouth wide against the bit as it galloped, rose up through the cloudy edges of the sand storm before collapsing back below, as if something had . . . cut it down.
Gripping the edge of the balcony so tightly the bones of his knuckles threatened to tear through his skin, he blinked the screaming horse away. It was replaced by another. And another. And as the sand charged forward, Fanshawe was almost sure he could hear the battle cries, both orderly and foreign carried on the wind that brought the sand from Omdurman to the borders of Khartoum and was sure, just for a second, beneath the wailing and screeching of the wind, that the cry of “Al nasr lana!” Victory is ours.
He stared until his eyes were bleeding water from the onslaught of dust, and then just as the foamy surf of the desert tidal wave reached the far shore of the Nile, the wind dropped. Within moments the desert had fallen, becoming simply silent dust and sand covering everything it had touched.
He stood there for a long time, feeling the small particles of crushed ground fall slowly through the still air, pulled back by gravity, their tiny weight still too heavy to sustain their flight without the power of the wind. They tickled at Fanshawe’s skin and scalp. It seemed to him that in that dawn moment of complete peace, the city sighed.
The day was quiet in the city. Fanshawe made some pretence of working in Cartwright’s office, but in fact spent much of his time staring at the desert photographs, spread out in front of him, a code within a code. Clift seemed relieved that he had no more questions for him and kept himself hidden away, and when the chai wallah came round he merely watched Fanshawe cautiously for a moment or two before sinking into his subservient role and pouring out the tea and milk with his one good hand before wheeling his trolley away again. Fanshawe caught a glimpse of metal and ivory around the man’s neck just before the door closed behind him.
The burning air was thick as honey and seemed so still that Fanshawe thought that not the breath of any god could lift it, but at four in the afternoon the slightest hint of a breeze teased its way into the hubbub of Khartoum. Away from the desk and looking out of the window, the glass panes blurred with dust in front of the mosquito screens, Fanshawe chewed on his lip and was convinced that he felt the city and its various people tense up.
He slipped out of the Embassy without saying a word to Clift and told the reluctant driver to take him to Omdurman. Staring at the shapeless streets and hawkers that lined them, he watched the wind tug at the jelabiahs and yashmaks and Adidas T-shirts, making its presence increasing felt. Somewhere beyond the pretence of civilisation the desert was stirring. Breathing. Claiming its life.
At Cartwright’s house, he let himself in. His heart thudded to a stop for the briefest moment before he slowly closed the door behind him and crouched to examine the floor more closely. His eyes narrowed.
Where the day before the marble had been spotlessly clean, sandy footprints now wandered aimless through the house, as if they’d come looking for their owner.
Fanshawe’s cool MI6 trained eyes scanned the room, and he walked carefully to the sink, picking up the glass that sat on the draining board. Around its edge were crusty brown lip prints that glittered in the fading light.
With the glass in one hand, he stared at both it and the footprints scattered on the ground and thought of the photographs still in his pocket, and the horses heads that had rose through the storm that morning, and that final cry of Al Nasr Lana, until eventually the wind outside howled as the sun set and his reverie was broken.
He left the lights off and put the dirty glass down. He took a clean one from the cupboard and made himself a large gin and tonic. The ice cubes tinkled loudly as he padded into the gloom of the large lounge. In the cushioned high back chair, he casually crossed one leg over the other, sipping his drink before letting the glass rest on the scratched wooden arm of the regulation Embassy furniture. He’d mixed it perfectly and as the gin tingled to his head, the tonic buzzed sharply on his tongue.
After half an hour the first tendrils of sand began to whip at the sides of the house. Fanshawe, perfectly still in the chair, smiled. He’d come to Khartoum for answers. In the encroaching embrace of the desert haboob, he wondered if perhaps he’d get them from Cartwright himself.
October 23rd, 2012 at 3:46 pm
October 25th, 2012 at 11:45 pm
I loved this story! Have you ever thought of expanding it into a novel? There’s not alot of Middle- Eastern- gods- based horror/fantasy around, and I think it’s just fascinating.