The sound of fountains came in stereo. A deep splash from
the courtyard below and a lighter trickle from the next room,
where open arches cut in a wall over-looking the courtyard had
marble balustrades stretched between matching pillars.
It was that kind of house.
Old, historic, near-derelict in places.
'Ambient temp eighty-one Fahrenheit, humidity sixty-two
per cent...' The American spoke clearly, reading the data
from the face of his watch, then glanced through a smashed
window to what little he could see of the sky outside.
'Passing cloud, no direct sunlight.'
Dropping clumsily onto one knee, Felix Abrinsky touched
the marble floor with nicotine-stained fingers, confirming to
himself that this statement was correct. The tiles were warm but
not hot. No latent heat had been stored up from that morning's
sunshine to radiate back into the afternoon air.
Bizarrely, it took Felix less effort to stand than it had done
to kneel, though he needed to pause to catch his breath all the
same. And the silver-ringed hand that came up to wipe sweat
from his forehead only succeeded in smearing grease across
his scalp and down his thinning ponytail.
Police regulations demanded he wear a face mask, surgical
gloves and – in his case – a sweatband to stop himself from
accidentally polluting biological evidence. But Felix was Chief
of Detectives and so far as he was concerned that meant he
could approach the crime scene how he liked, which was
loose, casual and lateral. Not to mention semi-drunk. All the
virtues that first got him thrown out of the police in Los
Besides, if you wanted to talk about should have been, then
he should have been on holiday. And he would have managed
it, too, if this particular buck hadn't been bumped up the line
so fast it practically hit the wall parking itself right outside his
The body in the chair was fresh, still warm to his touch.
Stiffness had set in to the arms – but then, rigor happened fast
when a victim was borderline anorexic. And even without the
woman's thinness there was North Africa's heat to add into the
equation. Heat always upped the rate at which rigor gripped a
On his arrival Felix had considered obtaining an immediate
body temperature. But habit made him do the crime-scene grabs
first, then work a grid through the victim's office, tweezering
up clues. And technically, since she was obviously dead, he'd
already broken his own regulations by checking under her jaw
for a carotid pulse.
'Covering the body prior to site shots.'
Some cities used electronic observers, 360 degree fish-eye
vids, wired for movement and sound. El Iskandryia used the
human kind, when it bothered to use observers at all. The
silksuit Felix had selected stood in the doorway, doing exactly
what he'd been told, which was shut up and stay out of
From a foil packet Felix extracted a sheet of tissue-thin gauze
designed to protect the woman's modesty in death, as surely
as a scarf round her head would have hidden her hair on the
streets in life. Except there was no scarf, because the woman
had been stabbed in her own house, at her own desk, in her
'Starting location shots,' said the fat man and lifted an old
Speed Graphic. The camera was linked to his even more ancient
LAPD-issue chronograph, which would back up each shot as it
was taken, just as the camera would automatically stamp time,
date and orientation across the bottom edge of each new shot.
All the same, Felix dictated a description of what he was
doing, working fast to photograph the little office from every
angle. Only when this was done could he start work on the
'Exposure five. Al-Mansur madersa. Upstairs. Interior. West
wall and corner of office taken from door. Speed Graphic
Digilux. Fifty-millimetre lens. K400-equivalence.'
The dictation did no more than tell the court what camera
had been used, what the shot showed and what the light was
like: something the camera readouts told them anyway. But he'd
learned his craft back when Speed Graphics still took acetate
and defence attorneys jumped on any conflict of technical
information, no matter how small. And besides, Felix spoke
not really to his camera or watch but to himself.
These days defence attorneys weren't an issue. If the Chief
of Detectives said someone had committed a crime that was
usually good enough for a judge. The suspect went down.
Unfortunately it had taken Felix a few months to realize this
and there were three cases from his early days in El Iskandryia
which still gave him sleepless nights – four cases, if he was
being unusually hard on himself.
'Exposure eleven. Al-Mansur madersa. Upstairs. Interior.
Open door to office, taken from broken mashrabiya window
in south wall adjacent to Rue Sherif...'
Mashrabiyas were, originally, shaded balconies where water
jugs could be left to cool. But the term had long since come
to signify both the balcony and the ornately carved screen
that hid those in the balcony from the street below. Marble
was commonplace for the screen, as was gilded or painted
The smashed mashrabiya at the al-Mansur madersa had been
carved two hundred years before from a single slab of alabaster
and now lay in shards on the floor, apparently kicked in from
outside. That the balcony was fifteen feet above a traffic-laden
street only made the break-in more unlikely. Unless one factored
in the Thiergarten who apparently could move unseen,
kill silently and climb walls like flies...
Felix sighed. Whatever else Berlin had to buy for its agents
abroad, their deadly reputation came free.
Officially, of course, Berlin was El Iskandryia's ally. Merely
an equal partner in a bigger, three-way alliance with Stambul
and Paris. Unofficially, French influence kept itself to Morocco,
while Berlin's advisers flooded the rest of the littoral and
Stambul banked its takings from the Suez Canal and did pretty
much what it was told.
Politics – now there was one subject Felix spent a lot of time
trying to avoid.
Grunting crossly, the fat man wiped fresh sweat from his
face and grabbed two shots of a ridiculous rag dog, quite out
of keeping with the cold elegance of the Khedivian desk on
which it sat.
And then, having put off what came next for long enough,
Felix turned his camera on the corpse.
'Exposure thirteen. Al-Mansur madersa. Upstairs. Interior.
The body, taken from front of desk...' Felix whipped off the
modesty cloth and took his second look at the dead woman's
wounds. They were no more pleasant than first time round.
Once started, he worked swiftly on the crime grabs, moving in
to get specific shots of the ripped-open blouse, the nails broken
on one hand, the trickle of blood dried to a stark black ribbon
down her side.
The woman was in her early forties. Middle height. Brown
eyes staring blankly at the ceiling. Black hair cut short and
expensive – elegant, obviously. The very fact her eyes were
clear and the cornea unclouded told Felix that she was less
than six hours dead, but he knew that anyway and put her
death at two hours ago at the most.
One of her elbows was flopped across the arm of her chair
and her head had tipped right back, the muscle relaxation that
precedes rigor having smoothed her face until it looked more
serene in death than it ever did in life: infinitely more serene
than it did glaring out from that afternoon's Iskandryian open
on the desk in front of her.
'Berlin furious as society widow slams RenSchmiss.'
And those in El Iskandryia's German community who believed
in the legal right to slash open each other's face for the sake
of highly-prized duelling scars had slammed right back, from
the look of things... Punching a button on the side of his
Speed Graphic, Felix reduced the depth of field until it showed
only what he wanted the judge to see. The injuries in sharp
To him the victim was no longer human: that was where he
differed both from his boss and underlings – and from Madame
Milla, the coroner, who would already be on her way. To them,
what slumped in that chair was still a woman. Deserving all
the respect and modesty that the law allowed.
Which was why Felix had put the rest of his day on hold
to make it to the scene of the crime first. Back in the City
of Angels where Felix had trained, he'd have grabbed a few
more corpse shots, lifted dabs, collected up handleable bio
like hair and stashed it in evidence bags and then vacuumed
the victim's clothes, one garment at a time, again putting the
dust into separate sachets.
And then, with the victim's original position recorded beyond
all possible doubt, he'd have had a medical technician take the
body some place near but non-critical and remove the clothes
so Felix could photograph the naked corpse, wound by wound
and bruise by bruise.
But that wasn't the way crime against women was handled
in El Iskandryia. At least, not officially and this, regrettably, was
unquestionably a very official crime. The victim had once been
married to an important man, there were rumours that she was
badly in debt – to whom nobody seemed to know – and she'd
been outspoken enough to upset the young khedive's German
This was the kind of crime that required press conferences,
photo opportunities and fancy political footwork, all of which
would get in the way of actually solving the murder.
Reaching into his pocket, Felix palmed a silver hip flask and
opened it by flipping back its spring-loaded top with a single
flick of the thumb. Like most things in his life, practice was
all it took.
We had a give-away contest. Winners were sent a copy of Pashazade,
courtesy of Simon & Schuster Earthlight.
The questions are:
What police regulations did Felix ignore? He was supposed to wear a face mask, surgical gloves and – in his case – a sweatband.
What was the name of the coroner? Madame Milla
How high was the balcony at the al-Mansur madersa? 15 feet
Copyright © 2001 by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from
the author. This excerpt has been provided by Time Warner and printed with their permission.