Read A Dead Djinn in Cairo Online
Authors: P. Djeli Clark
Fatma released a gratified breath. “Thank you,” she said. Then, suddenly remembering: “One more thing. Would you happen to know what these might be?” She held up a sketch of the four mysterious glyphs from the djinn’s apartment. Those bright eyes took a glance and there was a pause.
“Glyphs,” he said plainly.
“Of course.” Disappointed, Fatma tucked away the sketch. “Well, thank you again for your help, Maker. The night’s peace be with you.”
“As with you. Walk in His grace.” With that, the angel turned his back to them and resumed the inspection of his unfinished contraption. Their cue, that this meeting was over.
As they left the palace and walked out into the night, Aasim spoke his first words. “Cemetery? Does he mean…?”
“The City of the Dead,” Fatma finished. “Looks like a trip to the slums.”
By the time they reached their destination and Fatma stepped out into the dusty streets, she found herself wishing she had worn less expensive shoes. This part of Cairo seemed, at times, untouched by the wider world. The City of the Dead was a place most avoided. Mystics came seeking blessings by choice. Others were here because there was nowhere else to go. They lived in makeshift dwellings, or within the cramped spaces of tombs by now centuries old. It was an odd place for an angel to call home. But it was hard to know their reasons.
As Aasim questioned some of the locals, Fatma looked over the faces that peeked out from their crumbling homes. A small boy missing two front teeth eyed her curiously from one of them. She smiled, but that only made him disappear into the shadows. Everyone here seemed on edge. She turned back to Aasim, who listened as an old man with a thick white beard complained of fresh ghul attacks and disappearances.
“The ghuls take people!” he yelled, waving a crooked stick he appeared to use as a cane. “We report it but no one comes! We are left here to fend for ourselves!” A few more took up his cry, voicing their frustrations. A flustered Aasim assured them he would send out some men. But they scoffed, and someone made a crude joke about a policeman who somehow kept getting lost in a brothel. The crowd roared with laughter. When Aasim tried to hire a guide, however, he got no takers. Instead, they were just pointed in the right direction.
“Every Cairine is a comedian,” he grumbled as they walked away. “Never seen a slum rat turn down money.”
Fatma said nothing. Despite the jokes, the faces she saw were marked with fear. And no wonder, with stories of ghul attacks and disappearances. That would be enough to make anyone afraid.
The two passed through a secluded part of the cemetery to one of the larger mausoleums in the distance. The ground was rough and uneven here, and Aasim held up a lantern he’d bought off a local to guide their path. Like most other tombs, the mausoleum was composed of crumbling faded stone that had once been opulently decorated. A rounded dome capped its roof, still impressive even in its deteriorated state. They came to a wooden door inscribed with words in white chalk. The Harvester.
“What kind of name is that?” Aasim whispered. “Harvester of what?”
Fatma shook her head, uncertain she wanted to know. She rapped on the door. When there was no response she rapped again, calling out. Only silence. Grabbing hold of the handle, she pushed the door forward and it gave way. The scent that came from inside was jarring.
“It smells like death!” Aasim gagged.
Not just death,
Fatma thought, covering her nose with a handkerchief. It smelled like the dead. Cautious, she stepped inside the dark space. Her cane she left at the door, instead gripping the small, Ministry-administered service pistol at her waist. Taking the lantern from Aasim, she swung it about and then stopped in her tracks.
Slumped against a wall was an angel. Or, rather, the body of one—a felled giant of iron and steel. The mechanical carcass lay lifeless, a great gash in its chest. The angel himself was gone.
“It looks like he was … ripped out,” Aasim said, shaken. He pointed to where the metal was peeled back, as if pried open with bare hands.
Fatma swung the lantern’s light across the floor, where the angel’s alabaster faceplate sat broken. There was something else. She leaned closer to look. They were glyphs, familiar glyphs, etched in white. Curving horns. A sickle. An axe with a hooked end. Even a half moon shrouded in twisting vines. The very same ones from the djinn’s apartment. She was set to point it out to Aasim when the shadows in the corner of her vision moved. It was her only warning.
Something gripped her arm, squeezing so tight she cried out in pain, dropping the lantern. An eyeless, pale-gray face came into her vision, blackened teeth snapping. A ghul.
Fatma reached for her pistol—but the creature spun her about as if she were a doll, dragging her down and slamming her hard onto the floor. She gasped for breath, both at the jarring impact and the searing burning in her shoulder. Ghuls were dead, but unnaturally strong. This one would tear out her arm if she didn’t break free. Reacting now on instinct, she reached for the first thing at her waist. Her janbiya. She drew it from its sheath, lifting it high and slicing a wide arc. The blade flashed in the dark, cutting through rotted muscle and bone. The ghul’s forearm fell away, flopping to the floor beside her with a sickening slap before turning to black ash.
Freed, she scrambled back on palms and heels for the lantern. More snarls and the sounds of struggle filled the darkened room. Aasim had his hands full. Reaching the lantern, Fatma grabbed it and lifted it high. In the light, she could see the one-armed ghul glaring at her from behind a pallid stretch of skin where its eyes should have been. Its mouth fixed into a rictus, it croaked, “The Rising!”
Then it surged forward, its remaining arm reaching with twitching fingers. This time, Fatma had her pistol at the ready and now aimed the long, thin barrel. She fired once through its head—the only way to stop a ghul. It dropped dead, like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
When a hand touched her shoulder she whirled about, pistol ready. Aasim stood behind her, blood trickling from a gash on his forehead.
“Ghuls,” he said shaking. Fatma realized he wasn’t looking at her.
Turning, she lifted the lantern. The light shone across a towering wall of twisted, naked, pale-gray bodies misshapen by the sorcery that rendered their corpses into this mockery of life. The writhing mass clung to each other, barely paying the two living beings any mind. They seemed busy, sharing something between them that glowed faintly in their elongated fingers, devouring it ravenously.
“Angel flesh,” Aasim said hoarsely. “They’re eating…”
Fatma felt her stomach go queasy. That was enough. Lifting the pistol, she fired. Once, twice, three times. Aasim joined in. The ghuls shrieked, tumbling to the floor as they were struck. Then as one, the entire wall of ghuls crumbled and the mass surged toward them like a pale, dead sea.
Fatma backed away, readying her janbiya for a fight. But the attack never came. The ghuls streamed past, flowing around her and Aasim as if the two were islands in their path. Their bellies were distended, bulbous to bursting, but they scrambled away, at times on all fours like beasts, fleeing out the front door into the night. In moments, the mausoleum was emptied. And all that could be heard was their panting.
“Are we still alive?” Aasim whispered in the silence.
Fatma released a long-held breath. They were alive, but with more answers than they had started with.
* * *
Fatma frowned into the cooling cup of coffee. She thought of calling for a boilerplate eunuch to heat it. But truthfully, she didn’t feel much like drinking. Her gaze turned to the window of the all-night Abyssinian coffee shop with gilded Amharic script across its front.
“So we’ve had men all over the mausoleum,” Aasim was saying, chewing noisily on some sweet stuffed baqlawa. “They’ve confirmed, this Harvester—he was our necromancer.”
Fatma didn’t need the confirmation. She’d seen the spells and alchemist instruments in the mausoleum, including a copy of
Necromancers used a corrupted form of takwin to make ghuls, usually from corpses. But what she’d seen tonight explained the recent attacks. The Harvester was sending out his minions to steal living people, fresh bodies to make into ghuls. The place was a laboratory for creating the undead.
“A rogue angel.” Aasim shook his head. “What’s this city coming to?”
“They’re not really angels,” Fatma reminded him.
“Of course.” Aasim plucked pastry flakes from his moustache. “Well, whatever they are, they can go bad, it seems. This Harvester’s creations turned on him. Rather profound, don’t you think?”
“A pack of ghuls defeated one of them? More unlikely than profound.”
Aasim shrugged. “You saw it as well as I did. They were … feeding on him.” He made a face, but never lost his appetite.
“And those same ghuls just left us unharmed.”
“You’d rather they hadn’t? Maybe they were full!”
“What’s the Angelic Council saying?”
Aasim’s smirk was answer enough.
“Of course,” she muttered. “Silent, as usual.”
“As always,” he corrected. “Such higher beings don’t deign to tell us much.” He stuffed another baqlawa into his mouth, whole. “We did hear back from Khartoum about our dead djinn, Sennar. Turns out he was exiled from a lodge. The shaykh there accused him of “improper practices.”
Fatma frowned. “What does that mean?”
Aasim dusted sugary flakes from his fingers. “With revolutionary Sufists, who knows. All that mystic political talk hurts my head. You let some people read Marx…”
“So Sennar’s death is being ruled a suicide?”
“You said so yourself,” Aasim reminded her.
“But we didn’t learn anything. What happened to his blood? Those glyphs—they were the same ones as at the mausoleum. A dead djinn and a dead angel? That’s not coincidence. There’s some connection.”
Aasim sighed, sitting back with folded arms. “Maybe you’re right. But whatever link they shared they took with them to … wherever their kind go when they die. God willing, that’s the end of it.”
Fatma sat forward. “But what if it’s not?” She lowered her voice. “I told you what that ghul said to me. ‘The Rising.’ That painting with the black lake in the djinn’s apartment had the same words.”
Aasim frowned, clearly discomfited. “I didn’t hear any of that. Besides, ghuls don’t talk. They just—” He made a snarling face and crooked his fingers in pantomime. “There was a lot happening. Maybe you
you heard it.”
Fatma scowled into her coffee. Aasim was right. Ghuls barely had sentience, much less sense. They didn’t talk. They never talked. Only this one did.
she just been hearing things?
“What about those ghuls that got away?”
“We have men out hunting. They’ll be found soon enough. Always ghuls about. Thanks, al-Jahiz.” Aasim wiped his hands clean, standing to go. “The Cairo police, however, consider this case closed. And a necromancer was stopped in the process. Not a bad night’s work.”
Fatma frowned deeper into her coffee. “Ministry’s wired me the same.”
“Then do what I’m going to do. Head home. Get some sleep. There’ll be more than enough paperwork to do in the morning. The modern world loves paperwork. Another thing my grandfather didn’t have to worry over.” He sighed. “God protect you, Investigator.”
“God protect you, Inspector.”
When he had gone, Fatma sat alone, trying to put together the pieces from the night. But they just wouldn’t fit. She was working on a puzzle without knowing the whole, and it was going nowhere. Reaching beneath her bowler she ran a hand through her hair in frustration, and then resignation. She placed a few notes on the table and left the coffee shop, walking into the night. Perhaps she would take Aasim’s advice.
Pulling out her pocket watch, she flipped it open. A faint ticking sounded as a crescent moon moved slowly on spinning gears. Still a few hours till dawn, though this part of downtown Cairo never seemed to sleep. She replaced the watch, trying to decide whether to take a carriage or an aerial tram, when someone collided with her. A man, clad in black. The exchange only took moments before he was gone, without so much as an apology, leaving her to scowl at his rudeness. Sometimes this city—
Fatma stopped as her hand fell on an empty space in her breast pocket. Her watch was gone. A pickpocket! She’d fallen for a damn pickpocket!
Cursing, she spun about and scanned the night for him. Something lesser she might let go, but not her watch! Small groups of patrons moved between nighttime hookah cafes, or to the gaslight markets. She found her accoster easily enough, though—at the other end of the street. He stopped, dangling her watch teasingly by its chain before dashing away.
Fatma growled and gave chase. Could this night possibly get any worse? The man was fast, but so was she—even in these shoes. She kept up easily, pushing past startled passersby. When he disappeared abruptly around a corner, she followed, finding herself in an alley. It led to a wall, the length of it covered in shadows. Fatma drew her pistol, remembering that worse than thieves lurked in Cairo at night.
“I only want my watch back!” she called out.
And to deliver a few good kicks.
“Just hand it over. I’m armed!”
She walked into the alley. The only sound that came back was her shoes on the paved stone. And faint breathing. Not her own. She whirled about as the black-clad figure stepped out of the shadows. How had he gotten behind her? His face was hidden in a wrap of black cloth, revealing nothing but eyes that stared daggers.
“Stop right there!” she ordered, lifting the pistol.
She blinked. And then he was on her. So fast! The pistol was swatted away by something sharp, sending it clattering uselessly across the stone. A steely glint caught her eyes. The man’s fingers were capped by curled points of sharp silver. Were those claws? She had little time to think before he came at her again, arms swinging wide and slashing a tear in the fabric across her torso. She gasped at that. Not her suit!