The Egyptian Museum of cats
Rick hung up the room phone and joined Scotty at the breakfast table. The ex-Marine was munching on a Lebanese tangerine and watching the Nile boats below.
“Farid says to take the morning off,” Rick reported. “The scientists are about convinced that the signal isn’t internal receiver noise, but that leaves them up a tree. If part of the circuit isn’t causing the trouble, what is?”
Scotty waved his hand at the scene across the Nile where a great concrete tower rose into the sky. “It’s this land. Look at it. There’s a tower for television. A couple of miles away are the pyramids. Down the street is a new office building with aluminum walls, and it’s right next to a stone mosque that’s nearly as old as the city. If you ask me, Horus or Thoth or one of the old Egyptian gods is getting fed up and messing with the signal just for the fun of it.”
Rick knew exactly how Scotty felt. The remarkable blend of the very old and the ultramodern was visible everywhere in Cairo. But somehow the two did not conflict, probably because the Egyptians had been wise in their choice of architecture.
Maybe we’d better burn some incense and do a chant or two,” Rick suggested. “How’s this? Oh, Osiris, son of Isis, please get the bugs out of our antenna.”
“That’s no fit chant,” Scotty objected. “A chant should rhyme, shouldn’t it?”
Rick searched his memory for incantations to Egyptian gods, but there had been none in the books Bartouki had given them, although the gods had been described. He improvised quickly. “Then how’s this?”
He took a pinch of sugar from the bowl and sprinkled it on Scotty’s head as an offering to the gods, then bowed like a high priest and chanted:
The piece of hard Egyptian bread thrown by Scotty caught him just behind the ear. Rick picked it up and threw it back, grinning.
“The things I have to put up with,” Scotty exclaimed hopelessly. “I’m sorry I brought the whole thing up.”
“It didn’t help,” Rick admitted. “But it gave me an idea. How about going to the Egyptian Museum this morning?”
“It’s right across the park. Hassan can take the morning off and come back after lunch to drive us to the project.”
“I’m your boy,” Scotty agreed. “If you keep your chants to yourself, that is. Try one on those old statues at the museum and they’d fall on you.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Rick said loftily. “Maybe those old Egyptians had a better ear for poetry than you have.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Scotty returned. “If it sounds so terrible to me, think what it would sound like to a poetry lover. Go on and make your phone call.”
Rick did. He asked the desk to relay a message to Hassan, then asked about the weather. The clerk spent a minute apologizing profusely. It was chilly, he admitted reluctantly. Very unusual for Egypt. Hadn’t happened since 1898. Most regrettable. And so on.
He sounded like a Sunshine Tourist Service trouble shooter explaining that the downpour was only a heavy mist,” Rick said as he hung up. “The weather is unusual, remarkable, etc. It’s chilly.”
Scotty finished his coffee. “Okay. Let’s go. Got the kitty?”
Rick took the Egyptian cat from its nest under his mattress and put it into the inner pocket of his coat. “Couldn’t leave our pal, could we? Bad man might get ‘im.”
“We can’t let that happen until we find out why the animal is so appealing,” Scotty agreed.
“Spoken like a true Spindrifter. Do we walk, or take the elevator? Walking’s faster, but the elevator is more adventurous.”
“Walk,” Scotty said. “You need the exercise.”
Outside, the air was pleasantly crisp, but the sun was shining. Rick wondered if it ever rained in Cairo and made a mental note to look it up. He had brought a guidebook with him, and the map showed them the location of the museum.
They started off at a brisk pace, past the Nile Hilton Hotel, then across the heavy traffic of the bridge circle to the open park before the museum. As Rick turned to look at a statue he caught a glimpse of a figure dodging behind some shrubbery. His pulse speeded.
“Could be that we have a buddy,” he announced. “I saw someone dodge behind a bush.”
Scotty took a quick look without seeming to. “Someone there all right. A pal of our little cat?”
“It’s certainly no chum of ours, if it’s anyone who’s interested in us. Let’s hike and see how it goes.
They strolled idly past the museum, crossed the street, and walked up Kasr El Nil past the Modern Art Museum and the Automobile Club. Scotty took a pair of sunglasses from his pocket. They were of the silvered one-way mirror type that cuts down light transmission much as a neutral-density filter does for a camera.
Rick watched as he put them on, took them off again, and polished them with a handkerchief, turning them from side to side as he watched for spots.
“I knew those things looked like headlights,” Rick gibed. “I didn’t know they could also serve as rearview mirrors.”
“I may write an article on this for the Journal of the Optical Society,” Scotty said. “Works fine. Our buddy is a Sudanese, from the looks of him. Also, he has a comrade. A big, sloppy type in a black coat and a tarboosh. I’d hate to tangle with either of them.”
Rick thought of Scotty’s comment that it wouldn’t take much of a detective to realize he had the cat on him.
Scotty added, “Some distance behind are two other types, in tarbooshes. They’re striding along at the same pace we are, and keeping their distance. I’m flattered. Looks as if ‘they’ figured it would take four to handle us.”
“Maybe they sent one for us and three for the cat,” Rick said hopefully. “Cats are good scrappers. Any bright ideas, ol’ chum?”
“Yep. Let’s go to the museum. They can’t touch us in a public place. Got the map?”
They consulted it, letting the trailers see what was going on. The street they were on formed one side of a triangle, with its apex at the square in front of the museum. The next left turn, and another left a block farther on, would bring them to the front of the museum through Gami Sharkas and Shampelion streets.
Rick wondered if the latter was the Arab-English equivalent of the name of the man who had translated the hieroglyphics on the famous Rosetta stone and is considered the father of Egyptology. He knew from his study of cryptography that the first man to read the strange Egyptian written language was Jean François Champollion. Or maybe the map maker had made a mistake by misspelling the name. He looked for a street sign in English when they reached the street, but he saw none.
He had to grin to himself at the strange turns his mind sometimes took. He should be concentrating on a plan of escape, not wondering about a strange spelling of a Frenchman’s name. “See anything?” he asked Scotty.
“They’re still with us. All four.”
“Probably the second pair is in case the first pair loses us,” Rick guessed. “Let’s keep out of deserted alleys. They must be just waiting for an opportunity to grab us.”
“I hear you talking,” Scotty agreed. “And I believe every Brantish word of it.”
They turned into the museum grounds, waving off guides who came running. Normally, they might have hired a museum guide, but they were suspicious now of all strangers.
Rick produced some piastres and paid their entrance fee. He noticed a sign at the window that said all parcels must be checked. He was glad kitty was hidden in his pocket.
Inside, they paused at the sudden spectacle of great stone figures and huge stone sarcophagi. There was a great hall filled with giant statuary straight ahead, and on each side, wide staircases led to the upper floor.
“Topside,” Scotty said. “Then we can look down and see if any familiar faces come through the door.”
They walked up the left-hand staircase, past rows of ancient wooden mummy cases, and came to the upper landing. A few minutes were spent inspecting the last resting place of a one-time Egyptian lord, with frequent glances toward the entrance
They don’t need to follow us in,” Rick pointed out finally. “Sooner or later we’ll have to go out, and they’ll be waiting.”
“Sure. But it’s wise to be careful. If one had followed us in here, we’d have been forced to keep an eye on him. Me, I want to see this museum.”
They wandered through the countless rooms of the upper floor, each filled with antique treasures that were impossible to identify. There were few cards of explanation. One room was crowded with alabaster carvings, any one of which would have rated a whole room to itself in a modern American museum. The great building was literally jammed with rare objects, many of them thousands of years old. Uniformed guards were posted at every corner, obviously to protect the myriad treasures.
“The police are keeping an eye on us,” Rick muttered.
“What else are they here for?” Scotty commented. “Don’t try to carry off one of those ten-ton statues and they won’t bother you.”
Rick paused before a collection of brightly painted miniature clay soldiers, created to serve as a phantom army for some forgotten nobleman. “This stuff is priceless. I’ll bet they really do need guards.”
As the boys walked into a small room containing shelves of assorted clay and stone dishes and utensils, Scotty exclaimed, “Look, on the third shelf!”
Rick searched until he saw what Scotty’s quick eyes had spotted. It was partly hidden behind a clay jug. An Egyptian cat!
Closer inspection showed that it was not the mate to the one he carried. The museum cat was darker, obviously older. It was more stylized and slightly larger. There was no identifying card.
The Egyptian cat returned his gaze with dark stone eyes. “Wonder if they’d like to have you, too?” Rick said to himself. Four men wanted the one in his pocket. He wished it was as safe as the antique before him. Suddenly he let out a pleased chuckle. He had the solution.
“Are you lonely, little cat?” he asked. “Would you like company?”
Scotty got it instantly. He patted Rick on the shoulder. “That’s the old Brant brain, boy. I’ll duck out and distract the guard.”
Rick moved on, inspecting jugs until he saw Scotty engage the guard in conversation. His pal gradually turned as he talked, until the guard’s back was toward Rick. It was the work of only a moment to slip the cat from his pocket and push it out of sight behind the jug that partially screened the museum cat.
He smiled to himself. From the looks of the museum, it was highly unlikely that the cat ever would be noticed, even if it stood there forever. If one of the Egyptologists ever did happen to see it, there would be a new puzzle to solve. Which dynasty invented plastics?