’There’s something perverse about Cairo in the rain.’ Alex thinks to himself as he slouches down the street, shoulders hunched against a slow drizzling precipitation.
There are cafés, cabarets and night markets all open to the street, lit low in the dreary night. Alex passes them in a lonely parade, their patrons tucked into back rooms and away from the weather.
Occasional strains of music, whiffs of fragrant smoke, and barks of laughter reach Alex’s ears, but nothing tempts him into any of the establishments. Despite the invitation of the lamps’ warm orange glow, he’s on a mission. As he makes his way through main thoroughfares, the noise thins and thins until it’s little more than his footsteps and the incessant patter of the rain.
He walks determinedly through a small square where old, tall buildings with shuttered, dark windows loom up on all sides. He takes a turn into an alley and angles his body sideways to avoid brushing too close to the piles of trash and refuse tucked against the walls. An elderly man with a blank stare watches him from beneath an awning as he makes his way through the city.
These are streets with no names: old, sandy roads and uneven cobble stones.
Ten years and a world war have separated Alex from the Cairo of his youth, but the city he now wanders still feels ancient and solid beneath his feet. Despite the wet, greeting the heat of the desert metropolis is like welcoming an old friend.
He can hardly believe he’s here at all on this miserable January night.
He’d been home for a two month holiday before his parents had boarded a ship bound for Peru and he, ostensibly, had booked his own passage for a return to China. His work there had been going well and as far as the rest of O’Connell-Carnahan clan was concerned, he was supposed to be heading back for another season.
In reality he’d put in his resignation with Professor Orman in November. He had no interest in working with the man any longer, digging temples and tombs he felt no connection with. Whatever initial exoticism the Orient had drawn him in with had faded swiftly into the monotony of reality.
A restlessness had settled in his bones.
He knows he’s a good archaeologist in his own right. While he’s young, he has made good impressions and developed solid connections in the field. If he pursued it, he could get any number of research or assistant positions just about anywhere in the world.
But the tedium of trolling through the long list of potential dig sites in China, Peru, Belize, Arizona, Greece, Rapanui, Norway just made his eyes cross. What focus he’d manage to drill into himself while in University had dwindled fast in the real world, when decisions around his work were his own and not that of a superior.
He was free to make his own choices.
Sitting alone one night in a bar in Shanghai he’d realized there was really only one option for him.
He’d typed up his resignation the next day.
His boots thud mutedly against the stones, the soles worn down by long hours and inhospitable climates. The road turns sharply down and Alex furrows his brow as he focusing on not slipping through the fine silty mud the rain has mixed up in the street.
There’s a smell of sand and age and smoke and people and even under the poignant tang of the rain Alex breathes deep and he’s home.
Egypt is in his blood. He realizes this now. Good and bad memories alike, he was forged here. On these sands he was broken and made anew.
Having that kind of history with a place, how could Alex expect to live and work anywhere else?
So he’d put out feelers, read papers, checked in with old contacts and made some new ones. The dig season never truly stopped around here - too many treasures to exhume, too much money to be made - but it was hard to get permits if you weren’t backed by a major institution. Alex’s Cambridge credentials might have gone a long way in China, but here the Cambridge and Oxford crowd had been stomping around for decades and site claims could go back generations.
A few professors and researches had seemed to have interesting projects in mind, and Alex had nearly signed on with several different crews, but each time, before he’d put pen to paper, he’d pulled himself back.
Nothing was quite right.
It was probably thanks to his wild upbringing, but for some reason the thought of rooting around in a 2,000 year old trash heap just didn’t intrigue him. Excavating peasant houses along the Nile or the remnants of a sunken Junker while potentially interesting to read about didn’t hold his attention the way they perhaps should.
He’s spoiled. He knows it, and he snorts a laugh at himself as he reaches the bottom of the hill and looks around to get his bearings. He feels surreal and wonderful, after all this time-
The rain is coming harder, which isn’t saying much compared to the deluges of London, but all it takes is half an inch and these streets can begin to flood.
His knowledge of his destination is hearsay. His directions are jumbled and sometimes contradicting, but the blue curtains in front of him seem to match well enough with what he’s been told and he turns right with a bolstering sigh.
He needs an adventure. A proper one. Something with some daring and some danger. Ten years he’s spent trying his damnedest to forget the scars this place have left on him, and now walking these streets he feels freer than ever.
He turns down the fourth alley he passes, blood humming with the thrill that comes from navigating the tight darkness of an unknown street.
At the end of the long corridor he emerges into a small square which if possible feels even more claustrophobic than the alley. He’s reminded of the secret passages and hidden kingdoms of childhood fairy tales and its all he can do not to tremble with anticipation.
He has heard much about this place, but it is all in whispers and unsaid things.
There is a building in front of him, two stories high and stretched back into the mess of this forgotten bit of Cairo’s underbelly. Its at the intersection of five narrow streets, each one fading off into its own unknown stretch of blackness. Alex has no way of knowing how much tonight’s darkness is exacerbated by the rain, but he has a feeling there is never much light down here.
If you do not know your way in the dark, you shouldn’t be here.
One pathetic lamp is hung just under the overhang which shelters the doorway in front of him. It sputters in the damp, belching greasy smoke as it threatens to go out. The door itself is an imposing thing, small like most doors are here, but more heavily built. Solid. Intimidating.
There is a recess at eye level, the kind of slit which may be opened to judge the cut and character of anyone who may rap their knuckles on the dark wood.
Alex approaches quietly, his hands sweating as he prepares to do just that.
This is what he has come here for. This is the adventure he has heard whispers of.
His heart begins to speed up in his chest, his breathing quickens.
There has always been a darker side to the Egyptian antiquities market. Where there is money, there will be criminals endeavoring to take their cut of the profits. The trade in illegally acquired artifacts is nothing new, but it has, in the last decade, changed.
Where before it was a largely disorganized business being run by a handful of bosses with varying levels of competency, word on the street is that things have been recently... Consolidated. Many of the previous rings still operate, but the digging hands who frequent Alex’s favorite bars talk about them like they’re nothing more than puppets whose strings are held by a greater master.
Someone has taken a firm hand to Egypt’s black market, and if Alex is to trust his informants, this is his headquarters in front of him, in this dank, murky corner of Cairo.
Alex exhales steadily to steel himself, and takes another step closer to the door.
They call him a scholar, a criminal mastermind, and a warlord. He owns the underground, and will tolerate no disrespect. Word is that for the right price he can acquire anything, and in the right circles, he can retrieve artifacts which are more than your average museum curio.
He’s a man with power, in more than one sense of the word, and Alex wants to be a part of this. He doesn’t consider himself criminally inclined, but he’ll do just about anything to get his hands back in the sand, to find spells and curses and ancient relics of awesome power.
He wants this.
Swallowing hard he finds himself drawing up to the door, and before he can hesitate, he forces himself to raise his hand, and knock on the door.
His parents would be so disappointed, but this is the only lead he has, the only hint of an Egypt which is more than just trash heaps and buried villages and dead kings. Behind this door is his connection to things which are greater than that, things which transcend the concerns of mere mortals.
His heart races, his mouth is dry.
The slit in the door slides back with a resentful snap.
“What do you want?” A deep gravelly voice asks in Arabic.
Alex’s muscles tense and he struggles to relax them as he lowers his hand back to his side.
“Work.” Alex grunts back, drudging up the bluntest of manners he’s developed from the worst of company.
There’s a second where he debates with how to hold himself - Should he cross his arms? Fold his hands behind himself? - and he ends up standing stiff as a board and twice as awkward in front of the glitter of this man’s barely visible eyes.
There’s a rough snort of derision from the gatekeeper.
The last phrase is in heavily accented english and the peep hole snaps shut again before Alex can even think to respond.
For a moment the young man blinks owlishly. The rain is still spitting petulantly down on him, the lamp still guttering, shedding its unhappy light on the square’s only occupant.
Just for a moment. Then Alex bristles.
In many ways Alex knows he is the worst of both his parents. His father’s brashness, and his mother’s stubborn determination. He is proud, bold, and occasionally lacking in survival instincts.
He knows this.
And still he doesn’t stop his arm as it rears up to pound on the door with a tightly clenched fist.
On the fifth strike he almost stumbles forward as the door is yanked open wide.
At the threshold is one of the largest men Alex has ever seen. Dark skinned and narrow eyed, his body is built with the muscle of work, not show, and his barrel chest is puffed up under his dirty gray tunic. Beyond him Alex can just see a trio of similarly large men, scowling up from a recently interrupted game of cards at a low table in the corner of the small room.
Alex swallows hard before drawing himself up and crossing his arms in front of his chest.
“I want to speak to the boss.” His words are in perfect arabic, and his face is a bitter scowl as he glares back at the doorman. With a touch of both English snobbery and American superiority in his eyes, he does his best to stare the giant down.
Either this man is smarter than the average henchman or is simply very aware of the advantage strength can provide. His air of disdain does not falter, and his thick lips pull into a vicious sneer.
“Is that so, little boy?”
Alex fights down a flinch.
“And what would make you think you deserve the right to meet with him? Approaching his home, unannounced, under the cover of darkness? Like a thief, come to rob him?” The man’s little eyes widen theatrically as he speaks and he tilts his head as if considering.
“A thief?” yips one of the men from inside the room, the voice disproportionately high compared to the bulk of his body. He rises too, tall and lean, and stalks up to peer over the doorman’s shoulder at the pale Englishman standing in the rain. “I hate thieves.” He hisses. With a sharp sniff he tugs on the hem of his brown vest and rolls his shoulders back.
“I, too, hate thieves.” Growls another, and if the tall one’s voice is too high, this man’s voice is ludicrously low. Alex can't see him well from behind the first two, but the crack of his knuckles as he squeezes his fists sounds like the snapping of long bones in the otherwise quiet night.
The one man left at the table just laughs and tosses his cards down on the table, sweeping the small pile of coins the others have left behind towards himself.
“I am not a thief.” Alex feels a bit faint from all the adrenaline that’s suddenly pushing through his blood. He keeps his voice steady, but it’s a struggle.
Alex is man enough to admit that he is very average in most of his measurements. He can’t boast of any great height or strength or bulk. If anything he is overly-svelte and just a little short for a man his age, inheriting more of his mother’s fine bones than his father’s explorer's physique.
If he acquired anything from his father however, it was the innate instinct as to how and when to pick a fight.
Right now, every fibre of his being urges him to flee. He has no hope to win a match of brawn against these men, and while the doorman and the deep-voiced thug don’t seem particularly quick, he has no desire to match his speed to the one tall one with the bird voice.
He can't flee though. He needs to get inside. So he must end this quickly, and with words.
He swallows before he tightens his scowl and matches the doorman’s gaze.
“I have valuable skills which would be undoubtedly useful to your employer. I would speak with him, to offer my services. I do not come to steal from him.” Alex spits out the last negation like the words leave a foul taste in his mouth.
Inside his chest his heart throbs in a violent rhythm.
“Liar.” Grunts the man with the low voice, mostly hidden behind his companions, but Alex can see his enormous brown boots shift as he settles his weight. The young man swallows.
“Thief.” Hisses the bird man.
“One last chance to leave, boy.” The giant grunts.
Alex bares his teeth impotently and hisses. “I am not a thief, let me speak to-”
The massive fist which collides with Alex’s left cheek moves faster than the Englishman would have expected, and it hits twice as hard.
The blow stuns him, and he staggers and reels to the side, taking a knee to keep from collapsing completely, his hands instinctively going up to shield his face even as a foot comes out and slams into his ribs from the other side, sending him all the way to his back on the muddy street.
Alex has been in bar fights before. He’s lost a lot of them, but he’s always been able to land at least a few blows of his own before going down.
Apparently tonight he's going to break that dubious streak of victories.
Still he snarls and tries to scramble backwards, despite the breath that’s literally just been kicked from his lungs and the spots clouding half his vision. The tall one cackles and brings his foot forward again, not as hard as before, just enough to shove him around and keep him off balance.
Alex spits at him.
He has always had more bravado than sense.
With a shriek the bird man swings his leg back to slam it into his ribs again. And again. And again.
The pain is impressive. Alex cries out on the fourth strike, trying to curl away from the blows while still attempting to track the locations of the rest of the goons. For a brief heady moment he wants to do is throw up. On the fifth kick he feels something give and he yells because he can’t help it. The crack from his side deafening.
A meaty hand seizes the front of his shirt and hauls him upright, the over-muscled forearm bulging as it flexes, dragging Alex to feet which will no longer hold him upright unassisted.
A ribbon of fire rips through his abdomen, like a great beast is tearing through him and Alex chokes on another yell, trying to double over from the intensity of the pain.
Some dull voice at the back of his mind observes that this is the fastest he’s lost a fight, ever, and the rest of his head is too dizzy and reeling to silence it.
The doorman punches him in the face again, snapping his head to the side even as Alex twists and struggles to gouge his fingernails into the forearm restraining him, to get his hands up to defend himself, wrestling against the searing pain in his ribs. The second blow has the strength in his arms leaving him, his muscles numb to his commands as his brain rattles around in his skull.
The low-voiced man lands a cheap shot in the pelvis seemingly just for a laugh and Alex nearly does vomit all over thug number one.
His ears are ringing, his body colder than it should be, and black spots bounce in front of his eyes.
‘Useless, bloody arms’ he grouses mildly at his own limbs, too disoriented to really focus on regaining the use of them. He can feel his fingers tingling almost like an afterthought, and he can sort of get his hands to spasm, but try as he might he can’t get them to raise up in any sort of defense. come on- he pleads with himself, even as he swiftly looses his grip on reality.
Distantly he registers a new voice, not belonging to the doorman or the bird man or big-boots or the card player, but still somehow familiar-
The doorman speaks but he sounds different, something off about it, about him-
Then Alex finds himself abruptly crumpled on the ground, and he can’t remember falling per say, but he must have been dropped by thug number one if he’s back on the street.
What instinct and strength he has left goes into trying to drag himself a few inches over the wet gritty stone in whatever direction his head is facing, but even trying to move his left arm seems to set his whole side on fire. He cries out before he can help it and stills, waiting for the burning to subside.
There’s shouting, there’s roaring, and its familiar but not, it’s strange, so strange-
The last thing Alex registers before his vision blots out and the world goes silent is a sick, slick crack of bone and the doorman repeating one word over and over again in arabic: “why?”
Then he knows no more.