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Pashazade:  The First Arabesk

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Pashazade: The First Arabesk

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Author: Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Publisher: Earthlight UK, 2001
Series: The Arabesk Trilogy: Book 1

0. Arabesk
1. Pashazade
2. Effendi
3. Felaheen

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Alternate History (SF)
Avg Member Rating:
(26 reads / 14 ratings)


Part mystery, part speculative fiction, and wholly unforgettable, Jon Courtenay Grimwood's celebrated Arabesk series portrays the dark, hard-boiled story of a man out to prove his innocence in an alternate world where the facts aren't always the same as the truth... and murder isn't the worst that can happen.

t's a twenty-first century hauntingly familiar--and yet startlingly different from our own. Here the United States brokered a deal that ended World War I, and the Ottoman Empire never collapsed. And lording it over all sits the complex, seductive, and bloodthirsty North African metropolis of El Iskandryia. Almost nothing is what it seems to be in El Isk, and Ashraf Bey is no exception.

Neither the rich Ottoman aristocrat everyone thinks he is, nor the minor street criminal once shipped off to prison when he fell foul of his Chinese Triad employers--the fact is that Raf has as little idea who he is as anyone else.

With few clues and no money, all Raf has is a surname hinting at noble heritage and an arranged marriage to a woman who hates him. But nothing Ashraf al Mansur learns about himself is as unexpected--or as terrifying--as the brutal murder he's accused of committing. Now, as a hunted man with the welfare of a precocious young girl in his irresponsible hands, Raf must race after a killer through an unforgiving city as foreign to him as the truth he'll uncover about himself.



6th July

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 overlooking 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 Angeles.

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 office door.

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 corpse.

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 the way.

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 own office...

"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.


July 6:


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 body.

"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 wood.

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 taking 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 the 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. Short, expensively cut black hair--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 focus.

To him the victim was no longer human: that was where he differed both from his boss and underlings--and from Madame Mila, 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 advisors.

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.


3rd July

Three days before Chief Felix found his holiday plans suddenly ruined, the silent observer from the doorway of the al-Mansur madersa had been sitting at a cafe table, thinking. Of course, back then the observer hadn't yet met Felix and still mostly thought of himself as ZeeZee.

This, however, was in the process of changing. As for what he would become, he hadn't yet decided. And he had no good reason to be sat in the sun anyway.

Which took care of who, what and why...

Where? was simpler. According to the fox, looking down from space revealed a green wedge of delta driven into yellow sand. Nature fighting the elements. Or rather, nature fighting itself...

The fox was big on who, what, why and where. That had long been one of its more irritating functions. The fox lived inside ZeeZee's head. Most of the time it stayed there.

It used to ask him those kind of questions all the time when he was a child. But foxes live faster than humans and it was old now, tired. Mostly, though, he could still sense it lurking behind his eyes, and occasionally it took over. ZeeZee was fine with the fox. He had been ever since he'd realised it was meant to be there. And sometimes, back in the early days when they used to talk a lot, what the fox had told him was even interesting.

...looking down from space revealed a green wedge of delta driven into yellow sand. Stretching a hundred miles from south to north, over 125 miles at its topmost point and far longer than that if measured along the inlets and lakes of its almost fractal coastline, the delta fought back against a parched wasteland that dropped 2,000 feet into the desolate Qattara Depression only a day's drive away.

Far to the delta's south-west was the Great Sand Sea, an area so blasted in places by heat that the silica of some dunes had melted to chunks of clear, green-yellow glass. More than 1400 tonnes of the purest natural glass in the world lay strewn across the surface of the Sand Sea like fist-sized jewels. With a melting point 500 degrees higher than most natural glass, the sand-sea variety was so tough that a standard geological party trick was to heat a lump of the stuff until it was red-hot and then drop it into cold water. The interest was in what the glass didn't do... which was splinter.

Scientific argument raged about whether the glass had been formed when an ancient meteorite had hit the desert full on or whether a meteorite had cut through Earth's atmosphere at a shallow angle to skim the surface of the Sand Sea like a stone skipping across water, creating glass from the friction of its contact.

What was known was that a piece of the glass had been taken from the desert and carved into the shape of a sacred scarab, set into gold and given to a king. The scarab had been found by Wilhelm Dorpfeld in the tomb of Tutankhamen and was now in the Khedival Museum at Umm el-Dunya.

The green of the delta spread in a silt-rich patchwork of rice fields, date palms, villages and towns opening out like a fan from just north of Umm el-Dunya until it hit the southern edge of the Mediterranean where, in winter, waves crashed along barren, deserted beaches.

Three main roads cut through the delta, supports for the giant fan. And though one route led direct from the capital to El Iskandryia, few of those who used this road journeyed its full distance. People either flew over the delta or took the faster desert highway--a long strip of blacktop, where convict road-gangs engaged in a ceaseless war with the wind-shifted gravel that tried to eat the road at its edges.

The free city faced north, at the westernmost edge of the delta, limited on its northern side by the Mediterranean and to the south by a lake as long as the city itself. Necessity had made the inhabitants build and then build again on their narrow strip of land, until Iskandryia stretched over twenty miles from one side to the other but was never more than five miles deep at any point.

Looked at from any one of the spy satellites that hourly passed overhead, Isk appeared as a long grey rectangle bounded top and bottom by blue, with verdant green on the right and arid grit-grey to the left.

Increasing the magnification produced recognizable districts, from El Anfushi's narrow side streets (built on what had once been an ancient causeway jutting between Western and Eastern harbour) to the ornate Victorian offices of Place Manshiya and the stuccoed villas and Moorish follies lining the Corniche: that elegant coastal strip which ran east and featured houses so exclusive their owners could afford to keep them staffed all year but use them for only six weeks in high summer when the capital became unbearably hot.

There were two gaps in the grand buildings lining the Corniche. One gap formed Place Orabi, which stretched from the shore back to a statue of Khedive Mohammed, the point where Place Orabi intersected with Place Manshiya, a different square that ran west to east along Orabi's southern end.

Copyright © 2001 by Jon Courtenay Grimwood


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