Flight to Khartoum – Unreasonable resistance – The woman’s touch will not help us here – Judicious application of explosives – How the professionals do it
It never ceases to amaze me how many people think that the Bible was written by the Creator Himself, or dictated word for word to the Apostles, with gentle taps on the fingers whenever they misspelt a word. This is clearly not the case. I can easily recall a half-dozen places where the Scriptures differ from objectively observed facts. It is an even greater mystery to me why this would diminish its worth in any way. Had the Apostles only known a fraction of what we have discovered through hard work, careful theorising, ruthless culling of all things untenable, then the Bible would have been an entirely different book. What we see are the facts, blurred and distorted by the very Human urge to embellish, and the also very Human ignorance. Whoever wrote the Bible was not in possession of all the facts that we now have, but they saw things that we can only speculate about. There is no shame in ignorance. Persisting in ignorance once new facts or insights become available, though, is an entirely different matter. And that is the crucial difference between the scientist and the dogmatist.
— Prof. Alan Wadcroft, “Never the twain shall meet”
After our stay in Port Said, we set a course for the last place where Hammond and his expedition were last seen. They had used the city of Khartoum as a base of operations, and taken trips by boat down the White Nile. When their trips became longer, the dirigible Boreas had moored at Khartoum, to provide the expedition with supplies, and taken their scientific findings on board to be stored in the archives. I spent many hours during the trip in Boreas‘ archive room. I could find nothing in their documents that would explain their disappearance. They were looking for reserves of pitchblende, a mineral that has no known use whatsoever. But perhaps Prof. Hammond knew something about the substance that he had kept out of his field notes. I gave up trying to find anything in his notes, and went to talk to Captain Gaskin.
Gaskin kept to himself most of the time, when he wasn’t needed. His crew was well able to keep a straight course to Khartoum. I knocked on his door.
I walked in. He pushed his journal to one side, and gestured at a chair opposite his own. The Captain’s cabin was larger than mine, but still smaller than one would expect. One of the walls was completely covered with bookshelves, metal rods in place to keep the books from falling out in turbulent weather. He crushed out one of his cigars. Clearly, the prohibition against smoking on board did not extend to him.
“Professor Wadcroft. What can I do for you?”
“I’ve gone through all of Hammond’s papers, Sir. I can find nothing that would explain why they have disappeared.”
Gaskin laughed. “Running out of natural explanations?”
“Good grief, no. My working hypothesis is still human involvement. Either they were robbed and killed, or someone back in either London or Arkham did not want them to succeed, and took measures.”
Gaskin nodded. “Hence the presence of a bunch of mercenaries on board my ship. I’ve heard of that man, Professor. His reputation is not good.”
“Mr. Riley puts his faith in his greed. He has better reasons to shoot our enemies than he has to shoot us.”
Gaskin leaned back in his chair. “And what about this magician? He doesn’t look like one of your crowd at all.”
“We think he’s a spy. Who was it again that said, keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer? That’s Mr. Riley’s principle. I have to say his methods don’t sit comfortably with my own.”
“He’s one of Miskatonic University’s best… troubleshooters,” said Gaskin. “In times of trouble, I can’t imagine a better operative. But I’ll grant you that in times without trouble, you want him as far away from you as you can get him. As for Mr. Nazeem, maybe he’ll convince you somehow that Science doesn’t have all the answers.”
“Up to now, he hasn’t,” I said. “The villain probably climbed up the mooring cable to get here, and that little fire trick was a simple application of physics and alchemy.”
“Do you still hold, then, that Science can explain anything? You are going to the right place to cure yourself of that notion, Professor.”
“There are things that Science cannot explain, Captain. In some cases, we simply do not have access to required data. In other cases, the problem may well be beyond the capability of our greatest thinkers to solve, and we must simply give up. There are problems that we have proven insoluble, such as dividing an angle into three equals using compass and ruler. But apart from that, most problems will yield to the serious application of ingenuity and perseverence.”
“And when they don’t?” Gaskin looked at me with a bright eye.
“We give up,” I said with a shrug. “We write down what we do know, explain the problem, and give it to a future scientist. What we don’t do is make up all kind of supernatural explanations. Invoking spirits and ghosts is pandering to ignorance.”
“What would you do if it turned out that spirits were really at play?”
“Catalog precisely what spirits they were, and try to find out all about them. But we won’t find any spirits at Hammond’s last known location, you can depend on that.”
Gaskin nodded. “Actually, the place where we found the remains of Hammond’s camp is not his last known location. He had deposited plans with the authorities in Khartoum before going out again. That was a week before we set out to find him. I suggest we obtain these plans. I am certain that your Mr. Nazeem will be able to find the Hammond expedition like the Shepherd finds a lost lamb, but on the off chance that he can’t deliver, I’d like some facts.” Gaskin looked at his clock, which by an elaborate mechanism showed exactly the same time as the one on the bridge. “We arrive at Khartoum in four hours.”
Boreas slowly made its way to one of the mooring posts in Khartoum Airport, and nestled in between two other dirigibles. Cables were attached fore and aft, the ladder was extended, and Captain Gaskin and I made our way to the offices of Mr. Bouzid Moghadam, governor of Khartoum. We were shown to a waiting room, and offered the strong, black Arabic coffee. The Arabs are rightly famous for this drink, and despite being a tea-drinking Englishman, I could well appreciate it. A functionary walked in, and took us to the governor’s office. Mr. Bouzid Moghadam was a short, deep brown-skinned man wearing gold rimmed spectacles and an impeccably starched white business suit. His English accent betrayed a stay of at least some years in London, or perhaps Oxford.
“Good afternoon, Gentlemen,” said Mr. Moghadam. “How may I help you?”
“Good day to you, Sir,” said Gaskin. “I am Captain Gaskin of the airship Boreas, and this is Professor Alan Wadcroft of Algernon University, Ipswich, England.”
Mr. Moghadam gave us both a polite nod. Gaskin continued.
“We are here regarding the expedition of Professor Hammond, of Miskatonic University. I believe, Sir, that Professor Hammond deposited with you a trunk of papers containing his latest results, expedition notes, and plans where he intended to go next. We would like to reclaim it, so that we can pick up the search from his last known location.”
Mr. Moghadam looked at Gaskin, almost like he was weighing him up as an adversary, which was strange.
“We have this trunk in our possession, yes. But I have to say that it is a fairly large model simply to contain some papers. What else does it contain?”
Gaskin shrugged. “I can’t possibly say that, Sir. These trunks are used by all our expeditions. They have been designed to secure papers, maps, artefacts, rock samples and anything else that a scientific expedition can come up with.”
Bouzid Moghadam leaned his elbows on his desk, and looked at Gaskin over his steepled fingers. “Artefacts. What… artefacts?”
Gaskin hesitated, a little taken aback. “I’m not sure I catch your drift, Sir.”
“The English, and the Americans, have a long history of entering our country as honoured guests, and leaving again with certain objects that they describe as ‘priceless artefacts’. They claim that they simply wish to study them, and return them later, until it turns out that many of these ‘priceless artefacts’ have had a price placed on them regardless, and they have not a shred of intention of ever returning them. We Arabs ironically have among your people a reputation for thievery, and we would describe such an object as ‘loot’. We have had to move mountains to have the body of one of our kings returned to us, and it cost us dearly. We wish to make sure that none of our priceless artefacts are in that chest of yours.”
Gaskin’s face turned red, his eyes narrowed. “Are you calling us thieves, Mr. Moghadam?”
“No, Captain Gaskin. I am merely establishing that we have, as your lawyers call it, probable cause. The solution is simple. Open that trunk, and let us see what it contains. If it would turn out that your countrymen are not making off with our cultural heritage, then I will declare them the most honest of foreigners ever to enter our beloved country.”
“Sir, since this is not my expedition trunk, University laws forbid me from opening it in the presence of third parties. We will take the trunk on board, open it, and then show you the contents.”
Mr. Moghadam’s spectacles gleamed at Gaskin. “You will do no such thing, Captain. Unless one of my trusted functionaries is present at this opening, the trunk will remain in our possession.”
“And I’ve already told you, I’m not allowed to do that. That trunk is the property of Miskatonic University.”
“I do not dispute that,” said Mr. Moghadam. “But I wish to make sure that the same applies to anything inside that trunk.”
“Good God, Sir,” I said. “All that’s in that trunk, unless I’m completely mistaken, are some rock samples, and the latest known location of our people. Completely worthless to any of you, but for Hammond and his people, their very lives may depend on it.”
Bouzid Moghadam turned his eyes to me, and I was startled by the sheer animosity in his gaze. “Then, Professor, I sincerely hope that you are not completely mistaken. I have no interest in maps, pieces of rock, or scientific scribblings. But if I find out that even a single piece of our cultural heritage has found its way into that trunk, there will be severe consequences.”
“I suggest you don’t try to open it, Sir,” said Gaskin. “It’s been protected against tampering.”
“We know,” said Mr. Moghadam. “The last one of these trunks exploded when we tried to open it, and when the smoke cleared, the walls of the room were covered in blood and fragments of gold. You know my terms. If one of us is present at the opening, and if no contraband is inside, the entire trunk is yours, and good riddance.”
Mr. Moghadam rang the bell for a functionary, and we were unceremoniously shown the door.
“You idiots!” James Riley glared at us. “The governor deigns to talk to you, and you go in there making demands?”
“We did no such thing,” I said. “We politely asked for our trunk back, and the man all but accuses us of carrying off his national treasures. I didn’t think that was very appropriate.”
Riley laughed in our faces. “Oh my. All you do is enter a country looting and pillaging a few times, and the local darkies get all shirty about it. People can be so unreasonable.”
“We didn’t come in here looting and pillaging, Mr. Riley,” said Gaskin. “Those were legitimate expeditions and you know it.”
“How would you feel about a Sudanese expedition into America, if they dug up Abraham Lincoln so they could pick his skull apart with tweezers and write little pieces on the American habit of shooting their Presidents?”
“Don’t be a damn fool, Riley. What would you have done?”
“Well, for one thing, I wouldn’t have gone right up to the goddamn governor. I’d have gone to one of his flunkies, and opened up that trunk while he was watching.”
“That’s against the rules, Riley.”
“So is pilfering stuff off the locals. If you’re with some lowly nobody, you can give it back to them, agree with him what a bunch of thieving assholes some of these foreigners are, and get out with the things you actually need.
“We will go to the highest authority in this place,” I said. “This is an outrage.”
“You’ve already been to the highest authority. What are you going to do, pray? Mr. Bouzid Moghadam answers only to the Khalifa. Are you going to ask him? He loves you Limeys.”
“Bugger that,” I said. “Let’s consider our options.”
Gaskin reached out for his box of cigars. “Well, we do have a bunch of soldiers on board. Maybe…” He clipped the end off a cigar and lit a match, waiting for the sulphur to burn off before lighting his cigar with it. I looked at the captain, trying to read in his eyes whether he was joking or not.
“Surely, Captain, you are not considering…”
“That would be a mite unsubtle,” said Riley. “And if you pardon me saying, confirm every prejudice held about Americans in this place.”
The captain’s cigar was now burning to his satisfaction, and blew out a large cloud of smoke.
“No, gentlemen, I’m not serious. So how are we getting those papers?”
I heaved a deep sigh. I was going over the conversation with the governor in my head, and to be honest, much as it pains me to admit it, Riley had a point. We couldn’t count on Mr. Moghadam’s sympathy anymore, if ever. What we needed was a change of personnel.
Margaret gave me a stern look. “So what you’re saying is that you’ve widdled all over the carpet in Mr. Moghadam’s office, and now you want me to go in and clean up your mess for you?”
“Well, I wouldn’t want to put it like that, but…”
“I can see why you wouldn’t. But that is the essence of it, isn’t it?”
“I thought that perhaps a feminine touch could succeed where we have failed.”
“Bollocks, Wadcroft. Did you look round while you were there? Then tell me, how many women have you seen?”
“Well, I wasn’t paying attention, but-”
“I’ll tell you, there aren’t any. A woman in this place is someone you tell to do things. You don’t listen to them.”
“Hang on Margaret, Cleopatra was a woman, and she was Pharao. That’s just one country to the North.”
“She died thirty years BC. Killed herself when her husband did. She may have been Pharao, and you can bet she damn well pulled all the strings back then, but even she needed a man to do the actual ruling.”
“So you’re not willing even to give it a try?”
“No. Not that I wouldn’t, but I haven’t a snowball’s chance in hell of achieving anything.”
“Oh come on. It’s not like you to throw in the towel like that, before even…”
“This is bloody Sudan. The word ‘patriarchy’ hasn’t even been invented yet because they can’t conceive of doing it any other way. What do you expect me to do, bring enlightenment to the country just so you can get your luggage out of customs?”
I gave Margaret a long look. “Would be nice if you could. Never mind. I’ll go and have a word with Klemm. Maybe he knows how to crack the bureaucracy.”
“And I’ll just sit here and weave some bloody tapestries.”
“Of course I know Herr Moghadam. I was stationed nearby for several months.” Klemm’s eyes wrinkled in a private smile. “I helped him to reach his current position, so to say.”
“Then you did him a favour? Are you a friend of his? That would be splendid. Maybe you can make the man see sense.”
“Not really. His predecessor was killed by my artillery in the rather ill-conceived attempt to re-take Khartoum from the Mahdi. I did not know it at the time, but he is not likely to be thankful for it.”
“Ah,” I said.
While artillery has a kind of simplicity to it, I wasn’t quite ready yet to go that far. We didn’t have any cannons, for a start. But be that as it may, I was rapidly running out of diplomatic options.
“What I suggest you do,” said Klemm, “is simply to accede to Governor Moghadam’s demands.” He smiled. “That is, of course, if you are absolutely sure that no Kunstwerke or other valuables are in that trunk. How well are you and Professor Hammond acquainted?”
That, of course, was an excellent question. The rule against opening other people’s strongboxes was made especially to avoid embarrassment if certain objects had, inexplicably, made their way inside. I didn’t know Hammond all that well. To be honest, I didn’t even like the man all that much. Klemm must have guessed what I was thinking.
“Where is your trunk at the moment?”
“The Governor didn’t tell us. He is not so stupid that he would invite us to come and steal it.”
“I agree. Herr Moghadam is not stupid at all. Let us see. He knows of the so-called anti-tampering device, so he is not likely to keep it in his home. There are several warehouses on the East bank of the White Nile that belong to him in one way or another. He would keep the device away from anything too expensive.”
“Define ‘too expensive’,” I said.
“Stores of weapons and ammunition, obviously. Grain silos are highly prized. Art. Gold. His records.”
“Or maybe he does not intend to open it, in which case he could keep it anywhere.”
“There, you are right,” said Klemm. “If you do not trust Hammond to keep his fingers off that which he does not own, less civil strategies are needed. But I feel I must warn you that for several reasons, it would be unwise for me to show my face in this city, or even to make it known that I am on board this Zeppelin. I regret that I am rather unpopular here.”
“Oh? How come?”
“A few rather effective bombardments on targets that were… not entirely military, so to speak.”
I walked into the observation lounge at the bows of the gondola, to find Margaret, Miss Tennant, Klemm, and Nazeem all there. Riley sat in one of the easy chairs, with a whisky-and-soda in his hand.
“Good evening, Professor. How goes the hunt?”
An obnoxious little smile was on his face. I needed him to sort out this mess, and he knew it. No use pretending otherwise, I hadn’t gotten any further.
“It’s completely buggered, my dear chap. I’m forced to admit that I, as you Yanks so charmingly put it, have carnal knowledge of the proverbial canine. Do you think you could have done better?”
“Bet your ass I could. Want to make a deal Professor? I won’t try to turn base metals into gold, or mix up drinks that explode, and you keep away from diplomatic missions.”
Now that was a bit unfair. How could I have known that something as simple as picking up a few papers could turn into an international incident? Still, it had. Only fools stick to their guns when they already know they are wrong.
“Come on, Mr. Riley. If you have any suggestions as to how we can free our papers from the clutches of the Egyptian bureaucracy, I’m more than willing to entertain them.”
Riley put down his drink, and sat up in his chair.
“Right then. Do any of us know where that cotton-picking trunk is right now?”
“Okay. Then that is the first thing to find out. I’m gonna need some local clothes, a lot of money from the war chest and a pretty young woman. If we can’t find one, Miss Tennant will do, I reckon. Pretty girls make men less smart, and that’s just what I need.”
Miss Tennant gave Riley an icy look, but didn’t seem to think that worthy of a reply. As for me, I hardly knew where to start.
“Are you going to put Miss Tennant in danger, Riley?” I said.
“I am going to take Miss Tennant to one of Mr. Moghadam’s less well-paid assistants, and tell him a story to make a statue cry. Then, I will rattle my bag of gold in front of him. Miss Tennant’s job will be to sit next to me, look sad but determined, and maybe allow a little tear to trickle down that purty little cheek. Think that sits comfortably with your high-strung ideals, Professor?”
It most certainly did not. Margaret was right. This part of the world can devour a woman whole if she’s not careful. The idea of using her as a… a catalyst in some grubby deal, was repugnant to me. Even worse was the notion that young Miss Tennant might become an active ingredient in this unsavoury affair. I prepared to tell Mr. Riley what I thought of the arrangement, but Miss Tennant interrupted me.
“I’ll do it.”
I looked at her. “Are you sure about this? The danger…”
“Dishonour before death, Professor? This doesn’t look very dangerous. We’ll just be talking. Carl is out there, somewhere. If I have to sit in some grubby office blubbing for a bit to find out where he is, then I’ll do it. I’m sure Mr. Riley will intervene should things progress beyond decency.”
Riley laughed. It didn’t sound nice. “I like you, girl. You got some fire in you.”
“I don’t like this, Mr. Riley,” I said. “I don’t like this at all.”
“Nothing you did worked,” said Riley. “Stand back and let the professionals handle it.”
And that was that, of course. He was right. Riley, scoundrel that he was, was in his element here. I bit back the urge to tell Riley that there’d be dire consequences if anything happened to Miss Tennant. There was no point. I don’t like feeling helpless, but there really wasn’t anything I could do. He disappeared into the storeroom for some necessary equipment, not to mention a good sum of money, and Miss Tennant went to her room to change.
All the rest of us could do was wait.
Copyright: © 2014 Menno Willemse. All rights reserved.