Ody was dreaming.
He was being chased through a tunnel by the largest Cadbury's cream egg he'd ever seen. He was running along an endless corridor when the ground gave way. The huge chocolate egg rumbled away over his head as he splashed into greasy, inky water, in which small, lithe shapes flickered around his waist. He woke up screaming.
Jamila stuck her head around the tent-flap to see him sitting bolt upright on his camp bed. 'What's the matter? Bad dream?'
Ody ran a hand over his face, groaned and nodded.
'But...' She cocked her head to one side. 'Pilchards?'
'I hate pilchards.'
'Don't. Ask.' He flopped back on the bed, breathing heavily.
Jamila looked away for a moment, shaking slightly with suppressed laughter. Then she flung the tent-flap wide open. A faint red line outlined the distant dunes. 'It'll be sunrise soon. You'd best be on your way.'
Mary yawned like a cat and surveyed her worried troops. Day was dawning, Cairo was clearly visible under a haze of pollution on the horizon and Anna was nowhere to be found. The group had met on the pool deck at the bow of the cruise ship to coordinate their efforts, after combing the entire ship. Early-rising Germans draped towels over the deck chairs around them and chuckled wickedly.
'Gentlemen, you've been searching all night and turned up nothing. Any thoughts?'
'This is ridiculous,' snarled von Trapp. He was in an especially foul mood since the onboard cinemas had been showing The Sound of Music, and the songs were all stuck in his head. 'She cannot have gotten away! In case it has escaped anyone's notice, we are on a —'
He was interrupted by some shouts from the very front of the deck. Scantily-clad Germans were pointing and barking questions. Wandering over, the villains saw a coastguard boat skipping along ahead of the cruise ship. A loudspeaker screamed in Egyptian, then switched to English.
'...I repeat, you must respond to our radio messages. Ahoy there, ahoy there, the captain and crew, you must alter your course immediately. You have left your designated route and are cutting dangerously across major shipping lanes, please respond, I repeat...'
Somewhere to starboard, a ship's horn blared. Hurrying to the opposite rail, they saw a massive oil tanker sheering off at a dangerous angle, the rails lined with gesticulating Argentineans.
Mary folded her arms and looked stern. 'Does anybody know anything about this? Vandeveer?'
The crime boss ran his fingers through his hair. 'I don't know. Sreka was the one covering the upper decks and the control room....'
The Russian shrugged and lit a skinny black cigarette. 'Ah, the captain, the sailors up there, they kept asking questions, you know. Asking to see the ID. I could get no work done.'
The ship lurched as it smashed through a small fishing boat. Screams of protest and alarm began to be heard as more tourists poured onto the decks. Von Trapp pinched his nose. Some things were inevitable if you put enough villains in a confined space.
Mary rounded on Sreka and wagged a finger under his nose. 'What did you do?'
He stepped backwards, holding his hands up. 'Hey, I just tied them up, gagged them, hmm? So they would stop with the shouting and the threats.'
'Well, you get back up there and untie them at once!'
Sreka squinted quizzically and tipped his head from side to side. 'This... will be difficult.'
Mary's serene expression was like the sea withdrawing from the beach before the rush of the tsunami. 'And why is that?'
'I may have punctured a few gas pipes on my way out. Some of them saw my face, you know....'
There was a flash of light, then a deafening roar, as the top deck of the cruise ship exploded into a ball of fire. Shrapnel and debris began to rain down on the deck, splashing in the pool and squashing tourists where they lay defending their deckchairs. The crowd screamed as one and surged towards the railings, with some unlucky souls being pushed over.
Von Trapp snapped, and fumed. 'I'll kill you, you Russian toad!' He palmed a flat dagger from his sleeve, tossed it end over end and it was inches from Sreka's throat when the Russian caught the dagger by the razor-sharp blade. A small tickle of blood began to pulsate down the steel shaft. Sreka winced at the pain as von Trapp stared at the Russian, a little awestruck. At the same instant, Mary bellowed, 'Stop!'
Sreka grinned like a wolverine, and opened his palm, revealing the vivid red gash across it. 'Any time you feel like proving your balalaikas with me...' Sreka snarled, and Mary interrupted.
'Nobody is killing anybody! Andrei! Friedrich! I am disappointed! I thought we were professionals!' A shard of twisted, flaming wreckage landed a foot away from her, and she didn't blink. 'What we must do now...'
Vandeveer meanwhile cleared his throat. 'We do not have so many oil refineries in the Dutch Polders, but I think that is one. There. Directly in our path.'
The cruise ship was ploughing its merry way through the heart of Cairo's industrial shipping amidst screams, recriminations and the dull drone of police helicopters. Dead ahead lay a complex of pipelines, tanks and fuelling depots. It promised to be a big explosion, even by supervillain standards.
'Right,' said Mary, then she strode across to the nearest lifeboat. She kicked aside the frantic tourist who was scrabbling at it, ripped off the orange tarpaulin covering it and nearly lost an eye as Anna screamed and lunged at her with a broken bottle. She recovered from the shock, knocked the bottle from Anna's hand and laid her out professionally with a blow to the temples. 'If you want something done properly,' she said, casting a critical eye over her shamefaced team. Then she pushed Anna's limp body into the bottom of the boat. She read the stenciled instructions, and tutted. 'According to the weight requirements, it can only take four. One of us must stay behind.' She tapped a fingernail against her lips for a moment, then drew a silenced pistol and shot Sreka in the left shin. He howled and dropped to the deck, twitching and bleeding. Mary nudged him with his feet until he was facing her. 'Andrei, that was for crashing the cruise liner. I've missed your major arteries. You can meet us at the hotel. Come on, boys.'
The rest of the villains piled into the boat, exchanging winks and grins with the moaning Sreka, then Mary hit the auto-release and they plunged into the ocean. Moments later, a bloody hand gripped the rail and Sreka pulled himself painfully to his feet. He coughed, and snarled into the empty air, 'I qualified for the Russian Olympic swimming team in 1980. My specialty was the breaststroke. You'll be seeing me again, you nekulturny, ginger witch. And we'll be talking about that bullet.' At this, he launched himself over the side and into the ship's churning wake.
A few minutes later, the oil refinery explosion was indeed devastating — two neighbourhoods were razed and the thick, oily black cloud could be seen for miles. Pundits commented that the ecological effects would be devastating and that several species of Nile birds could become extinct.
Sreka gave a little sigh of professional satisfaction, and started swimming for the shore. A few moments later, near the bank, he emerged from the water like the rise of Kathulu.
As the explosions on the opposite bank rained down debris from the air, the water became studded with the splashes of large shrapnel from the exploded oil refinery. The were at least a dozen multi-coloured sirens converging on the flaming half-sunken wreck of the diverted pleasure cruise; more were converging on the life-raft containing Mary, von Trapp and the others. More flashing lights awaited them on the harbour's edge. Instinctively, Sreka backed into a shadow underneath a pipe running alongside an industrial plant.
Mary, von Trapp, Vandeveer and an unconscious Anna bobbed and rocked inside the life raft. A police launch came alongside them and a ladder was extended down to the water. Von Trapp went up first, followed by Vandeveer. Mary lifted Anna over her shoulder and ascended with her draped across her like a shawl. Mary clambered on board, placed Anna on the floor and stood up. Von Trapp and Vandeveer were in handcuffs on the deck, looking a bit sheepish, surrounded by a garrison of policemen.
'Cuff 'em,' said the Chief of Police, striding forward.
'But we are but humble tourists. Our friend —' she indicated Anna, '— was knocked unconscious; we —'
'I'm not fooled,' smirked the Chief. 'You were seen. The captain radioed in your descriptions before...' he indicated the conflagration behind them. Several fire boats were surrounding the wreckage, jetting out arcs of water '...before he died.'
Then Mary saw it, around his neck: the symbol of the Dying Pilchard. 'You will all pay for your wicked crimes,' he gloated.
'You're hamming,' she whispered.
'Is it too much?' he whispered from the side of his mouth.
'No prison made can hold us!' grandstanded Mary, to satisfied murmurings from the collected police officers, far too smug by half. Von-Trapp and Vandeveer exchanged worried glances.
'You will not escape this island ALIVE!'
Mary shot back under her breath. 'Egypt isn't an Island! Not yet, anyway. Arrange to have us transported. We'll sort out the rest.'
'Sergeant!' bellowed the Chief. An anonymous officer snapped off a salute. 'Take us back to the mainland, and have this lot taken back to the station.'
Mary sat down next to Von-Trapp. 'Getting arrested was NOT part of the plan!' he fumed.
'Au contraire, my dear Friedrich, au contraire,' she reassured him with airy and disproportionate confidence.
Ody tethered the horse to a rail and surveyed the busy Cairo street: the honk of cars jostling for the road, the clatter of shop-hoards in caught in a breeze, the general hubbub of people moving and talking on mobile phones. 'Cairo, the metropolis,' he thought distastefully. He craved the feeling of ancient history, the old temples and the ruined architecture. This — what was this but the very civilisation he had sought to escape from? Ody sighed. Like the Pharaoh's curse, it followed him everywhere. Happily, he didn't believe in such nonsense like curses.
'Nazi!' someone cried out behind him.
Ody sprung round like a coiled viper, fist clenched. Ready to spring in action.
'Nassi!' two men embraced each other on the pavement. 'How is business? Good? And the kids? Excellent!' The two moved away together down the street.
Ody shook his head, trying to clear it, Spending too much time out in the desert, he thought. He disappeared into the criss-crossing maze of interconnecting back streets that were Cairo's markets. Once, long ago, great trade had been done here: spices and riches, minerals from far and wide had arrived and departed and a great and powerful civilisation had grown in the desert. He passed a rack of mass-produced Sphinx paperweights with dollar tags looped around their necks.
He emerged into a small square bordered on all sides by slight buildings in the customary pale limestone of the region, whitewashed to reflect the worst of the noon sun's ravages, with low, flat roofs. Some were residential, but most were a mixture: homes above ground, customers passing busily in and out of open doorways underneath strips of shade achieved by hanging large draped linens. Among the sound of general bustling, there was also discernable the regular clattering of bead curtains to ward off flies.
Ody jogged up the few short steps into the Post Office. Pushing aside the beaded curtain, he stepped inside and let it swing clack-clakking to rest behind him. Inside was a queue, bustling and murmuring with ill-disguised impatience; as well as the humm and the chill of air conditioning units there was the rotational 'whop' of multiple fans.
After a short wait, he was presented to the young clerk on the desk, who looked bored but busy. She chewed chewing gum at him, popping bubbles every now and again.
'I need to telegram New York... er, I mean.'
'Telegram?' said the clerk, surprised. 'The Internet terminal's over in the corner,' she said, pointing. There was another queue.
'Er... I don't trust them,' Ody stammered uncomfortably. 'Look, it's an important message. Can I just send it the old-ashioned way?'
'Sure,' said the clerk disinterestedly, reaching underneath the counter for a form, franking it and slapping it down in front of Ody. 'Just, er... sign and date this and scribble it on the back.'
'I... um... haha — don't have a pen.'
A stranger next to Ody turned around and said 'Here, you can use mine,' and gave him a respectable-looking fountain pen.
'Thanks,' said Ody, smiling. Taking the nib between his fingers, he scribbled down what he needed.
'FAO: Alexander Perry, Smithsonian Institute CC: New York Museum of Natural History.
Have uncovered the cat-tomb at 29º N, 31º E. Register with Antiquities commission.
Back in a month, maybe two - when does the new semester start?'
He went to sign it. 'Ohi - '
He stopped and scribbled it out, signing instead his nom de plume, 'O.D.'.
'Thanks for the loan of the pen.'
'Keep it,' said the stranger. 'I have others.' He then suddenly turned and left.
'Oh, right. Okay. Sure.' Ody said, not quite sure what to make of this sudden act of generosity, 'Thanks again,' he managed, this time holding the pen out in a friendly wave. Turning back to the young female clerk, he said, 'See this goes in the first class, international mail.' He handed over the requisite tokens of currency.
'Okay sugar,' she said, looking past him as she cried out 'NEXT!'
Ody walked out of the Post Office and re-applied his fedora, happy to be going back to the desert. Cities just made him uncomfortable.
Across the road, a pair of binoculars from a rooftop followed him.
'What is he doing now?'
'He's getting on a horse,' said Slepp.
'We must follow him!' said Daltmooreby, attempting to stand up.
Slepp placed a well-mannered, yet strong hand on his shoulder and kept Daltmooreby down below the rim of the roof.
'What is the meaning of — get off!' shouted Daltmooreby irritably, trying to shoo away Slepp's hand. This was completely ineffective: trying to shoo away Slepp in the manner Daltmooreby was attempting was like an antelope, halfway up the tree, trying to persuade a jaguar by means of reasoned debate to please let go of its third and fifth vertebrae.
'Ssshh,' said Slepp placing a finger to his lips, 'that pen I gave him contains a tracking device. We can follow him form a distance and he won't suspect a thing.'
Below, Ody, with the pen clipped to his pocket, tapped the horse into a canter and set off down the side of the roadway, through the herds of tourists, back out into his desert.