“Silver Linings” by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris
Last month the newest edition to Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris’ Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series was released. The latest installment, Dawn’s Early Light, features Braun and Books on their next assignment, which brings them to the United States to investigate a series of nautical and aerial disasters. If you’ve not gotten a chance to read any of this fantastic steampunk series, then you are in luck! Today Fantasy-Faction has been given the privilege of premiering a short story from the series!
In this story, “Silver Linings”, veteran agents Wellington Books and Eliza Braun adventure through Cairo, and experience everything from boating down the Nile to (slightly) treacherous camel rides.
So, without further ado, on with the story!
– – –
Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris
“Ah, Cairo,” Wellington sighed as he stood on the ship’s gangway for a moment, taking in the impressive desert vista before him. “The cradle of civilization and human innovation.”
“Along with the cradle of oppressive heat, barren wastelands, and flies that you could hitch up to a hansom and use as a cheap alternative to camels,” grumbled his junior archivist as she disembarked.
Wellington Books looked down at the diminutive Eliza D. Braun, arching an eyebrow at her as she twirled her parasol in annoyance.
“Miss Braun, come along, are you telling me you do not find Egypt tantalizing in its history, its undiscovered mysteries? Why, the foundation of modern language and even the sciences began here.”
She bit back, “If I were fond of this kind of heat, I would take holiday in Australia. Hold my parasol.” Eliza unwound the veil from around the top of her pith helmet, and then snatched back the parasol.
“And here I thought you were a romantic,” he muttered.
“A romantic? Is that why you insisted on taking an airship to the Sudan and chugging upriver on this boat?”
“Chugging upriver?” Wellington asked, stunned. “It’s the Nile!”
“Oh for god’s sake,” she seethed, giving the horsetail swatter a few swings, “let’s get this over with!”
Hefting his huge brown case, Wellington lumbered down the gangplank, ignoring Eliza’s protestations to leave it for the porters. Wellington had thought the two might extend their stay after their official duties were completed, but it was apparent that his partner was immune to what he had heard described as “Pharaoh Fever” by travel brokers.
“Mr. Books? Miss Braun?” a voice called.
Wellington and Eliza turned around to see a tanned gentleman, unmistakably English in both his features and in the disdain etched in his face. Wellington did not care one jot for the way this man was sizing up both him and his partner. The man removed his pith helmet and casually fanned himself as he approach them.
“Marcus Donohue, Ministry Archivist, Egypt Branch.” He motioned around him. “Welcome to Hell.”
“Dunno about that,” Eliza replied. “Australia’s outback in the summer makes this place look positively welcoming.”
“And Cairo is a rather pleasant change from January in London. Dead of winter and all,” Wellington added. “This is quite nice.”
“To each their own,” he said, looking around him as if incredibly inconvenienced. “Shall we proceed then?”
Wellington nodded and motioned to Eliza to lead the way. Her scowl assured him that her mind had been made up about their visit to Cairo. Perhaps he would save the wonders of Egypt for another trip. Between Eliza’s demeanor and the local office’s reception, brevity was most certainly in order.
* * *
The Ministry outpost in Egypt was nestled in one of the many tight alleyways of Cairo, and blended in easily with the surroundings. The ground floor had been leased to Miggins Antiquities as a storefront in which to display their latest acquisitions before shipping them to their London showroom. As in their London office, the main foyer and open room were dedicated to cataloguing and inspection of various Ancient Egyptian artefacts. A few diplomats stopped to browse, paying no mind to the three of them. Eliza, on the other hand, was disturbed to see the common looting of tombs encouraged by their Ministry’s front office. It did not improve her mood.
At the back of the receiving room, a single staircase led up to a modest room of four desks. Two of these desks, Eliza knew from previous stations in the Empire, were reserved for visiting agents. The other two were occupied by those agents local to the area. The gentlemen planted there—finely dressed Egyptians—looked her over, and then disappeared back behind their respective newspapers.
Donohue gave a dry laugh as he continued to another stairwell. “Now, now, gents, do extend a courtesy to our colleagues from Old Blighty. I’m sure they will let us on to all that we are failing to notice in our sunny part of the world, yes?”
The second flight opened to an office decorated with fine antiquities, Egyptian rugs, and, against the far wall, a pneumatic messaging system that was Ministry-issue equipment. Eliza’s eyes, however, were drawn to the desk, modest in size and construction, and the valuables on it. Small statuettes of Egyptian gods and goddesses. Rings and bracelets of gold. Items that would look nothing less than impressive in one’s own private collection.
Eliza felt heat under her skin, and she knew this sudden warmth had nothing to do with the surrounding climate.
“Please,” Donohue said, motioning to a pair of chairs in front of the desk.
With a quick look to Wellington, Eliza took a seat.
“Thank you so much for meeting us at the docks,” Wellington said cheerily. He must have been attempting to blunt the Donahue’s edge. The archivist brushed a small film of sand and dust free of a Bastet statue. “Egyptian alabaster. Very nice.”
“One of the few privileges of being posted here,” he replied dismissively, “and of wearing many hats when working overseas with the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences.”
Eliza nodded. “Archivist and Field Director?”
“But that does not mean I fail to heed the call of our magnanimous leader,” Donohue said sliding a paper bearing the Ministry seal across the desk. “A transfer of archived material for cataloguing back at Ministry Headquarters?” He chuckled, sliding the order to one side. “How long do you want this process to take?”
Wellington glanced at Marcus askew. “I beg your pardon?”
“I can have you out of here tomorrow, if you like, or will you be reporting this as a ‘C.F.’ as your predecessors have done?”
Wellington straightened at that. “Whatever do you mean by that?”
“You know, a C.F.? A ‘collating fiasco’? That chap who was here last—Whitby, I believe his name was—he knew the game. Reported back to Sound that things were dreadfully in disrepair and insisted on extending his stay here.” He shrugged, shaking his head. “My predecessors assured me it was the way of things. One quick message via æthermail and you buy more time to enjoy a bit of the local culture and cuisine.”
“Well, Whitby was a bit of a git, now wasn’t he?” Eliza snipped. “Buggered off without a word to anyone one day, and left the Archives to seed. You’re not going to find we’re cut of the same cloth.”
She caught more movement in her peripheral vision. Hopefully, it was Wellington, beaming with pride. Eliza allowed herself a slight grin.
The proclamation of their ethics seemed to roll off Donohue like water off a duck’s back. “An official trip it is, then? Very well. While you load up a hired cart, I’ll look into bookings for airships.” He jotted down a few notes on the Ministry communiqué, paused, and looked them over as he did on meeting them. “As you all are Ministry stalwarts, I will assume Third Class seating should suffice, yes?”
Wellington leaned forward. “If this will help your office, Mister Donohue. Why don’t you just direct us to your Archives? We will not trouble you any longer than—”
“Turn around,” he interjected. He was looking at flight schedules now.
They both spun about to find six crates behind them. Eliza thought she and Wellington brought more luggage than this.
“That,” she began, turning on Donohue, “is ten years of cases from Cairo?”
“Yes,” he replied, still reviewing travel options for the two of them. “I know this may come as a shock to you, Agent Braun, but as the home office tends to stick their fat noses into our business, we remain watching from our post. Or,” he said, suddenly looking up at her with a rather chilly gaze, “we carry out the preliminary work while other agents step in and take credit.”
“Well then,” Wellington piped up, shattering the palpable tension, “perhaps we should just collect these cases and head back to London as quickly as possible, yes?”
A sudden metallic crack from the pneumatic messaging system made all three of them jump with a start. Wisps of steam were seeping from one of the “Incoming” tubes. Donohue crossed the room and opened the cylinder. Upon reading the enclosed message, he cast his eyes up to the ceiling in an expression that Eliza recognized. He was imploring to God in Heaven a simple question: “Why me?”
Donohue returned his eyes to the message, then looked over to her and Wellington.
“Well, it would seem that my day with you, Agent Braun, has been cut short. My presence is needed at police headquarters.” He waved the paper in his hand. “Marked ‘Urgent’ so it must be serious.” Donohue grabbed his pith helmet and motioned to the modest archives. “If you are the last ones out, please lock up behind you.”
Wellington and Eliza both looked at each other, quite stunned at how this branch could still be in operation in light of Donohue’s leadership. From the bottom of the stairwell they heard Donohue call out, “Agent Rateb, grab a memo pad. You’re with me.”
“Charming fellow,” Wellington quipped. Her partner removed his coat and unbuttoned his vest. “Well then, let’s get cracking. We should try and at least get an idea of how ‘well maintained’ this collection of cases is…”
* * *
Working with Miss Eliza D. Braun when she wanted to be anywhere else was not for the faint of heart. She had quite the grasp on chilly silences marked with exasperated sighs. Rather than respond, Wellington removed his glasses and pressed two fingers on either side of his nose.
Outside the call to prayer was ringing out, and as if on cue his stomach began to rumble. As he glanced across the top of the boxes, he wondered if now was the best time to suggest a beak for a meal. They had been at this for a good portion of the day.
However, the expression on Eliza’s face as she rummaged through the box he’d assigned her, suggested it was not a good time to suggest anything unless he wanted to feel the wrath of New Zealand. She was muttering to herself under her breath—Another bad sign. He caught ‘Donohue’, ‘self-important moron’, and other words that would not have been out of place in the mouth of a sailor.
He was just about to take his chances, when steps thundered up the stairwell. An Egyptian, possessing a finely styled beard, sharply-cut cream suit, and a smart boater-style hat common for the region, burst into the office, panting wildly. Wellington observed Eliza’s eyes widen and the hint of a dangerous smile pulled at her lips. She was quite ready to escape the mundane, and it was this readiness of hers that often led him directly into the mouth of madness.
“Where is Director Donahue?” the agent blurted out.
“He is still out, answering an emergency call,” Eliza said, before Wellington could get a word in.
He looked at them both, then to the desk, and then tossed the legal pad across the office. Wellington’s grasp of the man’s dialect was a bit rusty, but he knew it well enough to recognize it as similar words to what Eliza had used earlier concerning Director Donohue.
The agent took a breath, turning his dark gaze to Donohue’s desk. “Bastard said he was going to meet me here!”
“We saw you downstairs earlier. We’re Agents Eliza Braun, and Wellington Books on assignment from London—”
“—sent to collect your archives for proper cataloguing back in the Ministry Archives,” Wellington interjected, hoping to disarm the situation.
Well, he thought it was a valiant effort. “Perhaps we can help?” Eliza asked, undeterred by Wellington.
The man was not totally foolish, because he raised a brow in response to this. “The matter is of the utmost urgency and involves the Queen’s Own Camel Brigade and Lord Alton Rutland himself.”
At the mention of military men and the heir to a duchy, Wellington snapped to attention, his gaze narrowing. “Identify yourself then, and let’s be about it.”
The man straightened immediately in a similar manner. “Agent Khaled Rateb, currently assigned to Lord Alton Rutland’s protection.”
Wellington was reaching for his coat before he even realized it. “Explain that while we go.”
He dimly heard Eliza race up behind them. “The Camel Brigade?”
Agent Rateb shot her a glance. “Yes. The Imperial Camel Brigade is a small, experimental force, designed to move fast and silently in the desert. Part of my assignment calls for embedding with the troops.”
They secured the office and began to head into the city itself, the chill of the evening already setting in. Offering his arm to Eliza, the two of them shadowed Rateb as he explained his assignment.
“This experiment is the brainchild of Lord Alton and he is getting quite excellent results,” Rateb said. “I was assigned to not only investigate any possible incidents but also protect Lord Alton.”
“Lord Alton,” Eliza continued to press the man, “he’s Duke of Rutland’s only heir right?”
“Indeed, the very one.” Rateb peered around another corner before leading them on towards the far less savoury outskirts of Cairo. “He’s a very fine young man, with large responsibilities. This brigade of his is also a testament of his innovation.”
“Camels though,” Eliza shuddered. “I would think they’d be dreadful animals if you came under fire.”
Rateb shared a look with Wellington before replying. “Actually they take it much better than horses, and are less prone to running off.”
He led them down a series of narrow alleyways, the closeness of the buildings making Wellington tighten his grip on his cane.
“Donohue and I were called by the Duke himself to keep an eye on his heir. There was some concern that his life was in danger.”
“That would explain Director Donohue’s reaction to the pneumatic tube,” Wellington said to Eliza. “He seemed quite inconvenienced by the message.”
Rateb shook his head, appearing to bite back an opinion. He paused, then spoke his words, struggling for control. “After we had met with the Duke of Rutland—”
“Wait,” Eliza interrupted, “the Duke was here? In Cairo?”
“Yes,” Rateb replied.
“Then his concerns for his son were sincere,” Wellington added.
“Exactly. Donohue told me to volunteer for watch tonight with the brigade, even though there were no exercises today or tomorrow. He told me he would be in the office this evening, if needed. By dinner, I thought this threat, even though it had demanded the attention of the Duke of Rutland, may have been unwarranted until…” The agent shook his head slowly. “You will have to see it to believe it.”
They reached the barracks of the Imperial Camel Brigade, located on the edge of Cairo’s sprawl. Rateb took them up to the postern gate, removed a lozenge-shaped mechanical device from around his neck and pressed it into a matching symbol in the wall. The gate clicked open.
Wellington was duly impressed. “Security has changed dramatically since my days as a soldier.”
They slipped into the compound, and immediately Wellington grew suspicious, not of what he heard, but of what was notably absent. Even in the evening, there were usually lots of noises to be heard in a military encampment, and so it had been when they passed by the barracks of the enlisted soldiers. He had heard the expected cacophony of carousing, music, and laughter. Once they entered this section of the camp—a sequestered area Wellington knew would be “Officers Only” on account of its specialized operations—other than the low whu-whu of a pharaoh eagle owl in the distance, a heavy silence lingered around the archivist and his companions. Perhaps security had changed since Wellington was in the military, but soldiers most certainly would have not.
Eliza must have felt something off too, for she had her hand inside her jacket, undoubtedly ready to pull out one of her ponamu pistols. With the skin on his back feeling as though it were trying to crawl off his body, and a tumbling knot in the centre of his stomach making him feel rather nauseous, Wellington was for once not going to dissuade her. Working for the Ministry usually led to indescribable strangeness, and this felt decidedly otherworldly.
Agent Rateb paused for a moment, as if he too did not want to go any further. He licked his lips. “Lord Alton and the men loved to gamble in the evenings, but as always I was excused at sundown, and I went to prayers. When I left, the barracks had all been locked up for the night. There was nothing extraordinary. I’d gone every evening in the same way…” His voice trailed off as if examining his routine was dreadfully painful. “Except just before I left, Lord Alton’s cousin, Seth Taylor, had surprised him with a visit from his excavation near Akeldama in Palestine.”
“Seth Taylor?” Eliza asked. “Are you certain it was Seth Taylor?”
“Most certain. Lord Alton identified the man. He was quite affable, and came bearing bottles of wine. When I left he was at the card table with the rest of the officers playing, drinking, laughing…”
Wellington and Eliza shared a glance, and he knew she had also noticed the silence. Wrapping his fingers more tightly about his cane, the archivist jerked his head towards the door. “Show us.”
Eliza went in first, but when she came to a sudden stop behind the second door, Wellington almost collided with her…until he saw what had made her halt.
The bodies of ten or so men filled the room, spilled at ungainly angles. Already the whole space was buzzing with flies, even though the blood was fresh. A large, round card table had been tipped over and a soldier, still in his uniform, hanged from the rafters above it. His shiny boots were swinging back and forth to the accompaniment of a creaking rope.
“Bloody hell,” Eliza whispered, stepping over the body of another man who had taken a shot to the head.
The three of them circled the room, and Wellington was able to make a count: two hangings, a slit throat, five shootings, and two who were disembowelled. He glanced over at Rateb, and wordlessly the agent pointed out a young man lying under the card table, a sword still protruding out of his belly. Lord Alton had been discovered.
Eliza bent and touched the neck of the nearest body. “Still warm, so it wasn’t long ago. But the angle of the hilt and blade is odd—”
“Agent Braun!” Wellington on bending to examine the bodies a little closer saw the problem immediately. He eyed the pistol still in one of the soldier’s grips. “This man’s head-wound—”
“They all committed suicide,” Eliza came to the same conclusion only a beat behind him. She was examining the man with the cut throat, his knife still in his hands. “This poor lad here did himself in…like that.”
“So they are all self-inflicted.” Wellington stared around the room, which up until very recently ago must have been similar to the barracks he’d been used to when he’d been in the military. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” He turned to Rateb who was standing at the door, his hands tucked behind his back, and his face stern. “Was Lord Alton in poor spirits?”
Rateb shook his head slowly. “No, not at all. He had seemed glad to see his cousin, and when I left he was laughing and joking along with the rest.”
Wellington slowly wandered around the carnage, studying the final moments of the officers. “It is not unheard of for men to go mad, from the sun and heat, or isolation. But none of those were a factor here. And for a madness such as this to affect all of them at once…”
Eliza looked up at the man hanging above the card table. “Could it have been some kind of suicide agreement that you weren’t aware of? Perhaps they were adherents of some eldritch cult.”
Now Rateb looked more than a little angry. “We are not heathens here, Agent Braun! The brigade was in good form. At least it was before this happened to our officers…”
“And this cousin of Lord Alton’s,” Wellington asked, carefully getting down on his knees to examine the chaos of cards and blood on the floor, “is he among the dead?”
Rateb stepped carefully around the room, checking. “No, these are all brigade officers.”
Wellington cast a glance around the collected dead, and then bowed his head to whisper a brief prayer. His thoughts scattered, though, when something gleaming caught his gaze. He went to reach for it, but thought better and pulled out a pencil from his top pocket. “Agent Braun,” he said, pushing the stained cards aside. “Look at this.”
She bent down next to him, inclining her head to one side. “It looks like a coin, but what kind of currency is that?”
When she went to reach for it, he grabbed her arm, and yanked it back. “Let’s err on the side of caution, Agent Braun, at least when it comes to handling mysterious objects?” Wellington could feel the thrill of discovery course through his veins. “This currency is neither British, nor Egyptian. I believe…” He nudged the coin with his pencil into a handkerchief, and held it up closer to her. “Yes, an Antochan stater. See there—it has the head of the Emperor Augustus on it. It dates back to the Roman occupation of Palestine.”
“Very odd thing for a bunch of officers to be wagering with,” Eliza commented.
“Yes indeed.” He turned to Rateb. “Did you say Lord Alton’s cousin had been at a dig in Akeldama?”
The Egyptian agent nodded, his eyes remaining fixed on the gleaming coin.
Wellington couldn’t help smiling just a fraction. Could it be that he was actually holding a piece of ancient history in his hand? Something that his friends at the British museum would turn green with envy over?
“Welly!” Eliza snapped, “stop smiling like an idiot and tell us what you know!”
As he poked around the currency, he reminded himself that as amazing as this find could possibly be, this was still the site of an atrocity. “Silver coins, Miss Braun. From an ancient site very near Jerusalem.” He gave a soft “Ah” as he spied three more coins just like the one in the kerchief. “What—has time in the field erased your memories of Sunday morning church?”
She gave a dry laugh. “My father was a publican. We would be getting the pub ready for the congregation’s after church fellowship while the vicar held court.”
“Akeldama. The Field of Blood.” It was Agent Rateb. His voice sounded hollow, haunted. “This is where Judas Iscariot met his fate for betraying the prophet.”
“Wait, hold on, mate—you’re talking about the Judas Iscariot, as in he who betrayed Jesus Christ?”
“Indeed, and he was paid with thirty pieces of silver.” Rateb pointed just in front of him. “There is another coin here.”
Wellington pushed the coin into the kerchief. For currency thousands of years old, they gleamed as if minted yesterday. “According to Matthew 27, Judas hanged himself out of guilt. Since those thirty pieces of silver was considered blood money, they refused to return it to the temple’s treasury. They instead used the money to purchase a patch of land commonly known as the Potter’s Field.”
“That’s according to Matthew, Welly,” Eliza offered. “Acts says that Judas himself used the silver to buy Potter’s Field himself, where he then committed suicide.” She looked at both men and shrugged. “I said we prepared the pub on Sunday morning. Didn’t mean we never cracked open a Bible.”
“Scriptures tend to differ on what happened to the thirty pieces,” Rateb said, staring at the silver. “Other accounts claim it was melted down. Still more claim the silver was buried with Judas.” His breath suddenly caught in his throat. “Gloves.”
“Come again?” she asked.
“Taylor. I remember when he was introduced, he was wearing gloves. When I left for prayers, I happened to notice he was still wearing them. I recall thinking how warm his hands must have been.”
“So you’re saying, and yes, gents, this is for my clarification,” Eliza asked as Wellington bunched up the ends of the kerchief and tied them securely, “these five coins are from the thirty Judas Iscariot was paid with for betraying Jesus? That’s…”
He raised one finger. “Before you say ‘that’s impossible’ think of the other objects the Ministry has collected over the years.”
“But these are only five pieces,” Rateb interrupted. “Where’s the rest?”
Eliza glanced over the dead soldiers once, then twice. “The one survivor of tonight’s card game—Seth Taylor. I didn’t realize he was related to the Alton bloodline.” She shook her head, looking at the card in her hand. “I’ve dealt with him before, once in Barcelona, another time in Lisbon. Both times, confrontations involving the House of Usher. We had nothing on him in Spain, but he left quite a trail of evidence in Portugal. Whispers from the House of Lords were hinting that Taylor’s uncle was less-than-happy about his nephew’s shenanigans.”
“And with Lord Alton here dead at his own hand, nothing stands between him and the title.” Wellington said, his eyes falling on the gutted aristocrat on the floor. “It’s obviously suicide so there’s no blood on his hands.”
“But there is,” Rateb said, his hands clenching into fist. “Lord Alton was a fine young man. He cared about the people of Egypt, he really did, and now…” the agent gestured to the bedlam around them.
“He should pay,” Eliza agreed, “And he will.”
No sooner were the words out of her mouth, when a hideous commotion broke out in the compound. The wet roars of camels filled the air, and Wellington knew that something had to be terrifying the beasts. Eliza must have come to the same conclusion. She darted out of the room ahead of him.
Wellington managed to grab Eliza just before she ran in front of a camel bolting for the main gate. Astride it was a lean young man, working the skirmish saddlebags with both hands. Gatling guns on each side of the camel twirled and snarled at the gate. The wood surrendered to the assault; and when the doors collapsed to the sand with a groan, the camel and its rider galloped out into the night. Without so much as a “thank you” to Welly for saving her life, she dashed for the camel enclosure, swearing loudly. Apparently her disdain for the ships of the desert was not feigned. Wellington and Rateb followed after her, coming to what appeared to be a team of camels already saddled and ready for battle.
“Lovely,” she said, grabbing hold of the bridle of the nearest, outraged camel. “Always nice to see the troops ready for an emergency.”
“Nomadic raids do not follow a set schedule,” Rateb said, motioning to the weaponized camels. “We always keep a team prepared, just in case.”
“Those coins are deadly,” Eliza said, struggling to get the camel to kneel. “Imagine what the House of Usher could do with them!”
Rateb tapped Wellington on the soldier. “Give me the coins you found. Showing them to Donohue might inspire him to rouse Agent Noujaim and the local authorities.”
“Donohue can find us using the ETS rings,” he said, handing the cinched kerchief to Rateb. The nearby cries of the enlisted rousing from sleep or breaking from their nightly revels caught his attention. “Keep the enlisted here. Tell them the matter is well under control.”
It took Wellington a moment to remember how; but with the right manipulation of the bridle, he managed to get his chosen mount to flop down on its knees. The skirmish harness each of the brigade camels wore was kept fastened on five camels just in case of raids from the desert tribes. It made the camels harder to handle than usual though.
Eliza let out a little yell as her camel lurched up. “Finishing school never really prepared me for this sort of sport,” she said, running her hands over the controls of the saddle’s guns. It was a poor joke, since he’d studied her record and Finishing schools had been spared the delight of educating Agent Braun.
“You’re never too old for new experiences,” Wellington quipped as he mounted the camel and ascended upward.
“I’m liking this side of you, Books, you know that?”
“Yes, and that scares me a bit,” and with a cry, Wellington drove his camel into the night with Eliza right behind him.
* * *
Eliza was prepared for neither the stride of the camel, nor the exhilaration she experienced upon riding it. The warm Egyptian wind caressing her face as she and Wellington closed in on Taylor and, under the full moon’s glow, she took everything back she ever considered derogatory about camels.
Cutting through the darkness ahead were an array of torches surrounding the ancient pyramids. Taylor urged his mount towards them.
“Look there!” Wellington shouted above the noise of the camels, pointing just to the right of the pyramid.
Eliza squinted, and could just make out running lights of an airship emerging from the star-filled sky. “It has to be the House of Usher picking up their recruit.”
“We can’t allow him to reach them!” Wellington shouted, his camel’s pace now matching hers.
“Right then,” Eliza said, shoving her hands inside the levers of the skirmish saddlebags, “let’s see what we have here…”
Wellington’s warning was lost in the concussive explosion that shot out from the right saddle compartment.
“Found the rocket launcher!”
Two small explosions briefly overpowered the moon’s grey-white luminance. Neither Eliza’s nor Taylor’s mounts seemed bothered by the ordinance.
“Change of strategy!” she shouted just before firing another projectile.
This time, the ordinance exploded in front of Taylor. Much like a horse, the camel concluded that forward was not a wise direction in which to continue, so it stopped abruptly, dropping to its knees in the sand. From the way his arms and legs flailed as he soared into the darkness, it appeared Taylor was not prepared for that.
Wellington and Eliza had brought their own camels to a halt and returned to ground just as Seth Taylor found his footing again. He was now at a dead run, making his way towards the nearest pyramid.
Eliza drew her ponamu pistols and made chase. She had lost him in Portugal. Not here, she thought. Not tonight.
Above her, the drone of the Usher airship grew louder. Eliza could still make out Taylor in front of her, climbing higher and higher up along the face of the pyramid. She replaced one of her pistols and started her own ascent, but paused on hearing a clickity-clickity-click-clack higher up.
The airship was running out a rope ladder and dragging it along the pyramid. She would have to take her stand now.
Eliza stopped, pulled the hammer back on her pistol, and watched the man scrambling just above her. She fired and the shot hit something because she heard Taylor scream and some loose rock rolled down the pyramid face. She climbed up another pair of stones, but stopped when a grunt came from Taylor’s position. Eliza could just make out the rope ladder in the moonlight, swinging back and forth. On its third pass, Taylor gave a sharp cry and the slack ladder went taught.
“Go on,” she whispered as the airship’s engines revved.
More loose rock tumbled down the pyramid as the Usher airship lifted Taylor free of the pyramid. He swung wide, struggling to hold on to the rung above his head, one leg dangling useless underneath him.
Eliza waited for Taylor to swing back before she fired. He lurched, slipped free of the rope ladder, and slammed into the jagged pyramid face. He rolled down several shelves before coming to a stop, one arm dangling underneath him.
“Bloody good shot, Eliza,” Wellington called from underneath her.
Eliza holstered the pistol then looked over shoulder. “Not really, just lucky.”
“A lucky shot in the dark?”
“No,” she chuckled, “lucky that white is a fashionable color here in Egypt.”
* * *
Eliza adjusted her sun-spectacles as she watched the gangplank of the Ra being pushed out. While her features had been less than affable on their arrival, she seemed a bit regretful to be leaving Cairo. She picked up her cup and saucer and took a contemplative sip of tea.
“Must we leave? There’s still so much we could do, Wellington,” she said suddenly.
“Agent Braun,” Wellington said, setting down his own cup. “Are we going to have this conversation again?”
“Maybe,” she said, grinning wryly.
“This is a dangerous game you’re playing, Eliza, sneaking in field assignments while we’re supposed to be fulfilling archival duties.”
“Oh come on, Welly. I believe you are starting to enjoy yourself when we break the rules.”
Wellington gasped. “I am not!”
Eliza leaned in, pointing an accusatory finger. “Are you going to tell me you did not feel a thrill when you held in your hand the very silver paid to Judas Iscariot?”
He opened his mouth to protest but his throat seized up. Damnable woman. It was just terrible when she’s right. “Perhaps,” he admitted begrudgingly. “A bit.”
“HA! I knew it,” she proclaimed, taking a sip of her own tea. “However, there is something perplexing me about these silver coins. If handling them meant certain death, how could Seth Taylor carry them about without killing himself?”
“Mister Rateb did mention that Taylor was wearing gloves. I’m sure that was a precaution. However, I received an æthermissive from the Jerusalem authorities about Taylor’s stay there. Seems that before he came to Cairo, there were several unexpected suicides. One of them was a common offender, but the authorities said he seemed genuinely repentant when caught. The other two? Pillars of the community. The suicides were completely out of character.” Wellington offered, “I would posit that the shame of Judas is only felt by those who follow moral compasses of some sort.”
Eliza grinned. “Damn, I knew being a proper lady was going to get me in trouble one of these days.”
“And this is why I insisted you not touch the coins without some sort of barrier,” he said. “I still have hope for you.”
The waiter placed a third setting at their table, and Agent Khaled Rateb joined then, his smile mirroring that of the Egyptian sunshine. Wellington almost failed to recognize him with his cheerful disposition.
“Mr. Rateb,” Eliza said, smiling wide, “you’re looking considerably happier?”
“This is my normal state of affairs,” he responded, kissing her offered hand. “I’m afraid you caught me at an inopportune moment.” He cleared his throat and shrugged.
“No matter,” Wellington responded, toasting him with his teacup. “I’m pleased we happened to be present—” and he stopped to return a stare Eliza was giving him, her accompanying smile far too wicked, “—to assist you.”
“As am I.” Khaled handed Wellington a polished wooden box that fit neatly in his hand. Carved in it was the Ministry coat of arms. “Here you are. The Cursed Silver of Judas Iscariot’s. Found in the possession of Taylor. Handled with extreme care.”
“Excellent,” Wellington said, looking the box over. “These thirty coins will find a safe and secure home in the Archives.”
“I have no doubt.”
“You will make sure to keep our involvement to a minimum in your official report?” Wellington asked.
He ignored the soft groan from Eliza.
“I have a few more details to add, but in my preliminary report I made certain that your names appear only as logistical support for the Egyptian office. Have no fear.”
A horn blared from the Ra, making their heads turn in that direction.
“There you are. Your voyage home.” Khaled pulled out Eliza’s chair, then motioned to the airship. “As a token of appreciation, you will be flying First Class.”
“Oh, that was not necessary—”
“But we will accept it graciously,” Eliza blurted.
“And eagerly, it would seem,” Wellington said with his eyebrow quirking.
“Mister Books, Miss Braun,” and with a tip of his hat, Khaled took up his tea and departed.
“So where to next?” Eliza asked. “Please say the Bahamas. I can honestly say I have not investigated any cases peculiar or otherwise there, so it truly would be a warm getaway.” She held up a hand. “But with serious Ministry responsibilities our priority, of course.”
“Sadly, no.” Wellington pulled out the schedule he and Eliza had left England with. Several offices had been already checked off, and now they were due to head to… “Scotland. Edinburgh offices.” He gave a smile and whispered. “Yes, the Edinburgh Express.”
Eliza raised a single eyebrow. “Welly?”
“You have a look in your eye.”
“Oh no,” he replied quickly, “No-no-no-no, not at all. It’s just…” He looked at the schedule again and nodded. “Eliza, have you ever travelled by hypersteam?”
* * *
Khaled Rateb stopped in the street to look up. Through the opening between the row housing of Cairo, against a cerulean blue expanse, the Ra climbed to its cruising altitude. He was duly impressed with the two archivists. They were certainly not the idiots that Donohue had initially described to Noujaim and himself.
Then again, this was Donohue. Hardly a man of honesty. Or ethics.
He continued his way through the streets to Miggins Antiquities, up the first staircase to the four desks of the agents’ receiving area. Zeyad Noujiam was at his desk, hidden behind the paper. Khaled’s throat tightened on reading the headline concerning Lord Alton’s death. A tragic suicide, and a blow to the spirits of both Egypt and England.
Khaled took in a deep breath and asked in his mother tongue, “Is he here?”
His fellow agent glanced over the top of his paper. “Upstairs,” he replied before snapping it back up.
He climbed the staircase to enter the proverbial lion’s den that was the director’s office. The six crates that had held the past decade of cases, more precisely the ones that had captured the interest of Donohue and his predecessor, were now en route to London with Agents Books and Braun.
“I assume you have a reason to be up here, Rateb?”
Marcus Donohue was looking at what appeared to be a gold statue of an Egyptian queen, his latest acquisition from one of the many excavations happening outside of city limits. Fascinating how the British called what they do “archaeology.” He thought of those kind of digs as “grave robbing.”
“Agents Books and Braun are en route to London, Director.”
“I deduced as much on account of the absence of archives.” He narrowed his eyes on the inscription etched in the base of the statuette, the magnifying glass seemingly revealing the secrets of its glyphs.
Seconds ticked by. Khaled remained where he was.
“I take it there is something else?” he asked. Khaled noticed the always-present annoyance in his voice sounded more pronounced now.
“Where were you last night?”
That grabbed his attention. “I’m sorry, Agent Rateb, but did you just ask of my whereabouts?”
“Yes, sir. I did.”
“And you are asking this because?”
“Yesterday we were on assignment. You assured me last night that you would remain on watch at least until tonight in order to keep watch over Lord Alton.”
“Yes, I know,” he said, his eyes still on the statuette, not Khaled, “and that didn’t work out so well for Alton, now did it?”
“Sir, when you were needed—”
“No, Rateb, no, when you were needed,” he said matter-of-factly, “you buggered off to pray.”
“Director Donohue,” Khaled snapped, struggling to keep his composure, “I was given your word that you would be on call. Had it not been for the archivists, I would have been working alone in keeping a dangerous talisman falling in the hands of the House of Usher.”
“Yes, I read your report. Had it not been for the archivists, it would have been a lone Egyptian against—now let me see, what was it, ah yes—a lone agent from the House of Usher. Surely you could have handled that.” He sat back in his desk, interlocking his fingers together as he considered Khaled. “Or perhaps not. It’s as I’ve always said: throw monkey in a suit and it’s still a monkey.” He stood, crossed around his desk, and stood toe-to-toe with Khaled. “Allow me to remind you, Rateb, that if it weren’t for the British Empire and our technology you would not be wearing these fine clothes whilst working for the betterment of Her Majesty but rather begging for scraps covered in your own shit!”
Khaled continued to stare forward into space. He did not expect Donohue to raise his voice in such a fashion. Most uncharacteristic of him. Hopefully, Zeyad heard that.
“Never question my intent or actions. Ever.”
“Yes, sir,” Khaled muttered.
Donohue stepped back. “I believe you’re done here.”
“Actually, sir, before they left, the archivists did inform me that Ministry Headquarters are expecting more cases of a peculiar nature to occur, on account of recent archaeological digs.”
The director laughed bitterly. “Is that so? How melodramatic.”
“This is why,” and Khaled pulled out from his coat pocket Wellington Books’ cinched kerchief, “they have seen it fit to raise your pay. This is an advance on it.”
Donohue froze. “Really?”
Donohue took the kerchief from Khaled’s hand, undid the knot, and loosed the knot. “Good Lord!” he gasped, eagerly taking one of the silver coins and holding it underneath the magnifying glass. “This is legitimate currency.”
He chuckled. “I suppose they are expecting us to be busy, aren’t they?”
“Indeed. I’ll be downstairs if you need me, sir.”
As Khaled descended the stairs, he glanced at the director’s desk. He silently reminded himself to make certain he got a hold of Agent Book’s handkerchief before the investigation launched.
– – –
We’d like to thank the authors for sharing this story with us and we invite you to pick up the rest of this fantastic series today!
Dawn’s Early Light, book three in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series is out now. You can learn more about this series on Pip and Tee’s website or you can follow them on Twitter (Pip’s Twitter and Tee’s Twitter).