Port Said by night

Previous: Airship to Egypt

Sidelong glances – Arrival at Port Said – A change in personnel – Gustav Klemm and the Jäger – Master of Strange Powers

I have shipped on the Boreas as directed, and met the Algernon University expedition members. First impressions. Prof. Wadcroft is a pompous oaf, Prof. Enderby looks like something out of a Wagner opera, our driver Mr. Parsons is a simpleton with a single intense interest in machinery and very little else. Miss Alexandra Tennant is a sniper, and I have not yet determined whether her rifle or that tongue of hers is more deadly. She is convinced I’m after her skinny butt. No thanks lady, I’ve seen a lot better. More willing to please, too.

We have found a saboteur on board, who saw fit to disembark before we could question him, and is at this moment swimming towards France. Gaskin vouches for all of his crew, but I haven’t found a man yet who doesn’t want to be very rich. If whoever is plotting against us can put suicidal maniacs on board of our very own Boreas, Hammond must be on to something. If I’m any judge, our usual crew of brave explorers aren’t going to cut it, and we need some more firepower. I’ll have to have a word with our people in Port Said for some proper soldiers. All in all, this mission has the makings of one great big God-awful mess. Somebody owes me for sending me on it.

— James Riley’s expedition report

There is no possession more glorious for a man than another human being. To be the owner of his thoughts, will, desire, and make them subject to your own, is the essence of being master. You elevate yourself to more than an ordinary human. I have made it my business to own as many people as I possibly can. Not in the sense of slavery, because that means having to house, feed and water them, and that is simply too much work. Give them the illusion of freedom, and they will take care of that themselves. Just know that when you speak, a man will give you all that he possesses, do what you tell him. To be a master of men or women, is to understand what it is that drives them. The Bible gives us the seven deadly sins. In my business, three of these are more useful than any. Greed, lust, and pride. A man will do almost anything for money, or the touch of some soft naked flesh. But if you can manipulate him into thinking that he is less of a man if he does not do what you tell him to, he will run over hot coal for you. And then of course, there is fear. What you can’t do by paying them, getting them laid or suckering them into it, you can scare them into doing. Mr. Andrew Parsons has his toolbox. Wadcroft and Enderby have those brilliant minds of theirs. Miss Tennant has her sniper rifle and the knowledge that the world owes her a living. Me, I’ve got my collection of human vices and frailties.

The thing is, what I have, others have. Someone had managed to sneak someone on board Boreas to relieve us of twenty tons of metal. He couldn’t have been on board from Cairo, so it must have been either London, or Ipswich. That means either Gaskin is right, and the damned Redcoats want to get a clean shot at whatever it is that Hammond discovered, or our own dear friends from Arkham are having a little in-fight.

There’s nothing more poisonous to morale in an expedition than the notion that there are traitors among us. The thought that not everyone can be trusted. For a bunch of amateurs, leastways. Me, I’ve worked with so many traitors that I’m more surprised if someone doesn’t try to double-cross me. There is of course the school of thought that you can trust no one, but in my experience, you can usually trust everyone. The trick is to find out what their motivations are. Once you know that, you can trust anyone to act in their own best interest.

All things considered, we had a quick flight to Port Said. The Brits were huddled together, whispering at each other and looking at passing sailors. Of course, I got some sidelong glances as well. Christ Almighty, what were they thinking? That spies have little horns on their heads that you can see if the wind blows just right? Spies and traitors are perfectly normal people. I’ve been a traitor a few times so I know. Hell, I slept with a few, and I can recommend it. There’s something about wanting to know your secrets that really puts the fire in a woman’s loins. Just remember to feed them some misinformation afterwards, or alternatively, kill them. Shooting someone you’ve just been in bed with is one of those things that you can’t explain. You’ve got to do it to know what it’s like. The look in her eyes, pissed off at herself that she didn’t manage to fool you, realising that she doesn’t have you in her hand, and the fear, knowing there’s nothing she can do, and it’s all over… no. Words just don’t do it justice. Spies are fair game. Everyone knows it. And as long as I’m smarter than the fools I’m up against, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

As soon as we put down cables at Port Said, I grabbed Wadcroft by his neck and took him to town, hoping to get a half-dozen or so hired guns. The man nearly swallowed his moustache, but I easily convinced him that it was essential to protect the ladies on the expedition. There’s plenty of guns in Port Said. You have a wide range of choice for your fearless fighters. You can walk into the maze that is the slums, and get a bunch of highly capable Soldiers of Fortune who’ll be happy to lay down your life for them, at the small cost of all your valuables. They’re cheap, and they’ll fight like devils if they can see the gleam of gold in front of them, but you need to really, sometimes literally, beat it into them that trying to cut your throat won’t get them anything. On the other side of the coin, you can go to the authorities and ask them for help. This has a few interesting side effects. To begin with, they want diplomatic amounts of money. Second, you can be sure that everyone, up to and including the Eskimos, knows where you’re going and what you’re doing.

“Come now, Riley,” said Wadcroft. “There’s no need to go for riff-raff and cut-throats. We’re on official University business. Last time I looked, we were still on good terms with the Egyptians.”

“Did you return King Tut, then?” I said. “And offer to repair the Sphynx for them?”

“Those were the French,” said Wadcroft. “No skin off our noses what happened there. And Tutankhamen is an immensely important figure in Egyptian history. If it hadn’t been for Mr. Carter and his explorers, he would still be lying in a hole in the ground.”

“I kind of think that’s their point. He’d be in Egyptian soil, rather than out in the National History Museum in jolly old London. The Egyptians can be a tad Oedipean at times.”

Wadcroft frowned, clearly thinking I was stupid. “I’m afraid I don’t follow you, dear chap. Oedipus is Greek, I think you’ll find.”

“They love their mummies.”

This was enough to have Wadcroft chuckling to himself all the way to a tavern I knew, where the barman knew someone who knew someone whose brother’s cousin might just have some connection with someone with guns. We ordered some of the local horse piss and sat down somewhere out of the way.

“So explain this to me, Mr. Riley. Why is it better to have villains like these…” He nodded his head at one of the patrons, as far as I could tell an honest merchant of tapestries. “To protect us from the other undesirables?”

I took a slow deep breath. “Professor, we’re here to look for a bunch of damned foreigners, who disappeared looking for something so world-shatteringly important that it’s worth killing all of them for, and us into the bargain. If we go to the authorities, they’ll be all over our asses all the time, keeping us from going where we want to, and then we’ll be lucky to find even a few grains of sand out of Hammond’s boots, never mind the minerals he was looking for. And we want any proceeds from Hammond’s brave deeds to end up in Arkham if you don’t mind. So I want to be the one giving the orders.”

“So why go here? These people look like they would kill for a lot less than a scientific breakthrough of Earth-shattering proportions. That nice watch in your pocket, for example.”

“I got that from my mother,” I said. “Maternal bonds are sacred to the Egyptian. No, I’m looking for someone in particular. I’ve been told that he comes to this bar specially because they have Schnapps.”

Schnapps?” Wadcroft made a noise like a horse. “Are you trying to get a bloody Hun to join us?”

“Prussian, actually.”

Wadcroft’s face was a picture. I made a mental note to challenge him to a game of poker sometime. With his skill at hiding his tells, I’d be able to read every single one of his cards and take the shirt off his back.

“I can guarantee you that he won’t have any call to rat us out to the authorities. He’s a mite unpopular with them. God only knows how he’s keeping them from sticking him up against the wall. But I’m counting on him having his wallet in the right place.”

“So what is this Kraut’s name, then?”

“His name,” I said, “Is Gustav Klemm. Also known as the Butcher of some little town in the ass-end of Egypt, population zero. When the Prussians surrendered, they sort of forgot he was still here. Say about him what you like, but he’s the best strategist you’re likely to meet this side of the Mediterranean. And he’s got no honour at all. As long as you pay him what he asks for, he’s yours. That’s why I like him. I don’t trust patriots, I don’t trust religious fanatics, I don’t trust people with God-damn principles, but greed, that I trust.”

There was the noise of footsteps behind me, and a voice spoke with a Teutonic accent. “You are quite right. Few things are more trustworthy than the love of money. My good friend the barman tells me you are looking for Gustav Klemm?”

I turned round. Standing behind my chair was a man in his early fifties, hair turned white. He was dressed in a white suit, not of a military cut, but it looked like you could shoot him and he’d stand up in it. He was leaning on a cane. I was disappointed to see he didn’t have an eye-patch or a monocle. Blue eyes looked at me, unblinking. Now here was a man I’d really not want to play poker with.

“I certainly am,” I said. “Would you join us at our table Oberst Klemm?”

Klemm gave a little nod. He pulled out a chair, and hung his cane on the back of it in a way that suggested that where he had put it, that was its destiny. He sat down with his back to the wall.

“I have not been Oberst Klemm for many years. My home land found it most expedient simply to forget about me. I have done them the same courtesy. How may I be of service, Mr. Riley?”

“Meet my friend, Professor Wadcroft, from Algernon University in Ipswich.”

Klemm gave Wadcroft a polite, precise nod. Wadcroft nodded back, but said nothing.

“He wants to go on a little trip into the African jungle, to reclaim some goods for Miskatonic University. He’s worried that people might want to keep him from doing that. Your job would be to handle those people.”

“How long would this trip last, Mr. Riley? I have certain formalities to take care of. If I were to let them lapse, it could become…” He searched for a word. “Unangenehm.”

“No more than a month, Mr. Klemm,” said Wadcroft. “We’re looking for a lost expedition, and if we don’t find them in that time, we must assume the worst.”

“Ah.” Klemm gave Wadcroft a little smile. “The Hammond expedition. They approached me for protection. Sadly, I was otherwise beschäftigt.”

“Who did they get in bed with, Mr. Klemm?” I said.

“Nobody,” said Klemm. “They purchased a store of weapons and ammunition.” A sarcastic look was in his eyes. “Everyone knows that the natives will run as soon as a shot is fired. They are armed only with bows, arrows, blowpipes and pointed sticks. Shooting back is, of course, ausgeschlossen. Even if they do, the white man’s Hochmut is ample defence from curare.”

Wadcroft looked at Klemm through narrow eyes. “Do you think the natives got them?”

“If they did not, then I would consider it rather lax of them.” Klemm’s eyes gleamed at Wadcroft. “Perhaps they thought these strange pale people were their gods.”

“The Arkham lot are famous for thinking they have found old Gods. Sometimes, I think the atheists will inherit the Earth.”

“Everyone is an atheist, Professor Wadcroft. It is just that some people have one god that they have not renounced yet.”

“Mr. Klemm,” I said, wanting to keep theology out of this debate for now. “What do you have to offer us in the way of protection?”

“You are in luck, Mr. Riley. I have just concluded a piece of business, and I and my Jäger are able to take on another task. How many rifles would you want?”

“Our transport will hold a dozen people. We have room for five or six more.”

“Who will be our Gegenständer?”

“We don’t know. Best guess at this time is another university, after the same thing we’re after. But we don’t know that for sure. For all we know it’s another one of those shadowy cults.”

Gustav Klemm leaned back in his chair, and steepled his fingers. His eyes turned from Wadcroft to me, and back.

“I do not like to go into battle without knowing who the enemy is, and what his capabilities are. I and five of my Jäger could protect you from a hundred tribesmen. A sniper could take us all before we even knew we were under attack.”

“We will be well protected while we are travelling,” said Wadcroft. “We have an ironclad transport. Safe from spears, and bullets as well. We will have nothing to fear from anything short of an artillery shell.”

“Do you expect to conduct your search inside your vehicle, Herr Professor? I can tell you that disabling and destroying Panzer was one of the specialities of my sister unit. When I was fighting for my home land, I thought nothing of dying. Now that I am fighting for money, I must be alive at the end of the adventure to profit from it.”

“Are you chickening out on me, Herr Oberst?” I said. “I hope retirement hasn’t made you soft.”

“Neither soft nor stupid,” said Klemm. “What steps are you taking to learn more of our adversaries?”

“My agents are combing through both London and Khartoum. I await their reports.” I didn’t find it necessary to tell him that I wasn’t expecting much of them, but who knows? One of the idiots might get lucky. “Also, I’ve been authorised to pay you twice your normal price. Half up front, half when we return.”

Klemm looked at me for a long time, then at Wadcroft. He reached into his pocket and produced a card, which he gave to me. “Very well. You will transfer the sum to this account in Bern. You will promptly share with me any intelligence you obtain on our adversaries, and in tactical situations, I will give the orders. I expect them to be obeyed without question. I will gather five of my Jäger, and I will join you on board your dirigible at five thirty tomorrow morning, local time. Gentlemen, from that time, you are under the protection of Gustav Klemm.”

Klemm got to his feet, picked up his cane, nodded at both of us and left. Wadcroft looked at his back, with a frown on his face.

“If my father, may he rest in peace, knew I was associating with a bloody Hun, he’d disown me. And shoot him.”

“So where once we fought each other tooth and nail,” I said, “We’re now at peace with the old fire-eater. Who says the love of money is the root of all evil?”

I left my drink and took Wadcroft back to Boreas.

And that would have been it for the evening. I was heading for the drinks cabinet at the front of the ship, feeling pretty good about myself, having secured the best protection possible, when our sniper lady caught up with me.

“Miss Tennant, what an unexpected pleasure. What can I do you for?”

“Wadcroft needs you, in his cabin,” said Miss Tennant.

“That’s a mite disappointing. I was hoping for someone else’s cabin.”

Miss Tennant gave me a deliciously cold look of distaste, then turned round and walked away. I followed her.

“So why is Wadcroft keeping me away from a decent drink?” I said.

“We have an unexpected guest. He simply showed up in Wadcroft’s cabin. You did pull up the ladder after you got here, didn’t you?”

“Of course. where do you think I was born, in a barn?”

“I’d rather not speculate on what kind of place you were born in.”

“On the banks of Lake Michican, Miss. Sweet home Chicago.”

“Gangster city. Why am I not surprised?”

“I reckon there’s very little that surprises you, Miss Tennant. Now who’s our mystery guest?”

“Some Indian man. I didn’t catch his name. He’s annoying professor Wadcroft.”

“I like him already.”

I opened the door, to find Wadcroft and Enderby already there. At the table sat Andrew Parsons, but nobody was looking at him. By the porthole stood an imposing figure, arms crossed. He was tall, with an Indian look to him, wearing a white turban. He had dark eyes and a long dark beard. As we entered, he gave us a bow.

“James Riley. Alexandra Tennant. Peace be with you.”

“And also with you,” I said. “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”

“Before you stands Nazeem. Nazeem has come to put himself at the disposal of Professor Wadcroft. Through long meditation and study, Nazeem has mastered the ancient arts of the Fakir. His master was Pir Mohammed Chhel, and others that it is not his liberty to name.”

Oh God, that was just what we needed. A wandering magician to complete our happy family. You can find them here and there in the States, but most of them have moved to London. The English used them to great effect to really put the wind up the more superstitious of their Queen’s new subjects. When the English became too uncivilised even for them to put up with, the less superstitious kicked them out. Just to be absolutely clear on this, they were frauds. They were, and are, extremely good at reading people’s body language. They have memories like elephants, and the theatrical skills to repeat back at you what you’ve just said and make you believe they knew it all along. At that time, though, I was utterly convinced. Convinced, that is, that Nazeem was a spy. That didn’t worry me. I can deal with spies. Like I said, they’re the most fun people to be around. Most people would have told Nazeem to take a hike, and not to bother with the ladder, but I’m not most people. Anyway, what would be the use? Tell one spy to get lost, and another one takes his place.

“So Mr. Nazeem,” I said. “What can you do?”

Nazeem bowed his head, then raised his arms and clapped his hands. A blue flame appeared round his right hand. As he moved his fingers, the flame played between them. Then, with a quick wave, it went out.

“This is but a small demonstration. The spirit of Fire is subject to the will of Nazeem. Also, it is given Nazeem to know the future, to know the thoughts of other men. His mind may influence objects both near and far.”

Enderby laughed. “Do you do the rope trick as well? I love the rope trick. Must have seen it a hundred times in the theatre. Never figured out how he did it.”

“Nazeem does not insult the Spirits with such cheap deceptions. The rope trick is simply that. A trick, to fool the ignorant.”

Enderby smiled. “And nobody has actually seen it. Not out in the open, anyway. Lots of people heard of others who have seen it, but there are no reliable witnesses.”

“Of course not,” said Wadcroft. “The whole thing is a sham. What are you doing here, Mr. Nazeem?”

“Ten days ago, Nazeem was troubled by dark dreams. The Spirits were angry. One of their sacred places had been disturbed by white men, looking for wealth, power. They were taken to a place of judgement. Nazeem alone can take you to that place. Nazeem alone can speak to the spirits, and reclaim their lives. Without the intercession of Nazeem, they will die. This is certain.”

“And how,” I said. “Will Nazeem convince these Spirits not to make lunch of my countrymen?”

“The intentions of the Americans are pure. This, it was given Nazeem to know, and this is the message he will convey to the Spirits. The Spirits do not wish for these deaths, but they are bound by their word. Once Nazeem speaks to them, they will understand that they are not bound to bring death to the Americans.”

“And why are you willing to do this? Do you have a price?”

“To do good deeds is its own reward. In the Afterlife, Nazeem will sit at the table of the Prophets for the deeds he has done.”

That could mean one of several things. Nazeem could be a religious fanatic, but these people tend not to be. That’s not as strange as it sounds. Fooling other people ain’t that hard, but once you start fooling yourself, at some point the wheels will start falling off your wagon. Which left the other possibility. He’d already been bought, by money, fear, or some other way. No matter, I’d find out what it was. Now to persuade the rest to take him on.

“Would you excuse us for a moment, Nazeem? We need to discuss this among ourselves.”

“Of course.”

Nazeem bowed, and walked out.

“I don’t trust him,” said Miss Tennant.

“Nether do I,” said Wadcroft. “Does the man really expect us to believe that he is some kind of wizard? Us?”

“You’ve got to admit,” I said. “That fire trick was pretty neat. I’ll bet science can’t explain how he could just conjure flames out of thin air.”

“Hah,” said Wadcroft. “If you’d paid attention, Mr. Riley, you would have seen that he held his right hand under his arm all the time. A mixture of water and alcohol will burn with a blue flame, at a low enough temperature for the human skin to withstand for a few seconds. The flame was on, for… How long Andrew?”

“Eight seconds,” said Andrew.

“Eight seconds, thank you. You will also note that he was wearing rings. He must have made a spark by knocking them together. Has Science explained enough, Mr. Riley? I think this man was sent to spy on us, and perhaps sabotage our mission.”

“Excellent,” I said. “So do I, in fact. So what better place for a spy to be than right under our noses? If we throw him off the ship, then they’ll just send someone else. Besides, I like him. I say we let him join. At the very least, he can give some of the locals the fright of their lives. Without killing them like Oberst Klemm could. We Americans like to have some kind of option between running away, and going in guns blazing.”

“I agree,” said Enderby. “As long as we keep an eye on him, he could prove useful.” She grinned. “At least he can do some nice magic tricks on long boring evenings.”

“That’s decided then,” I said. “Nazeem stays.”

Sometimes, you just have to tell people they agree with you. It works surprisingly often. We called Nazeem back in, introduced him to the Captain as a new expedition member, and put him in the bunk below mine. Nazeem was most grateful. Nazeem pledged us his undying loyalty. But mark my words, if Nazeem tries to pull anything funny, Nazeem will get a bullet between Nazeem’s eyes.

Next: Knowledge is power

Copyright: © 2014 Menno Willemse. All rights reserved.


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